Talking tough, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) informed North Korea on Monday the United States is able to defend itself and its allies against nuclear and missile threats.

Responding to reports that North Korea launched a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan (search) on Sunday, Rice said, "I don't think there should be any doubt about our ability to deter whatever the North Koreans are up to."

And, in reassuring South Korea, Japan and other allies in the Pacific area, Rice told reporters: "This is not just between the United States and North Korea."

A suggestion Thursday by Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (search), that North Korea might be able to strike American territory with a nuclear-tipped missile also has raised tensions and concerns.

Negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program are stalemated. But Rice said North Korea's missile program should be put on the agenda when and if the talks are resumed.

By contrast, South Korea and other Asian governments appeared to take Sunday's missile test in stride. They said it was a short-range weapon that could not reach even Japan and it had no link to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

The missile "is far from the one that can carry a nuclear weapon," South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-soon said in an interview with South Korea's Yonhap news agency. "This isn't a case to be linked to the nuclear dispute."

Still, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said after a 40-minute meeting with Rice at the State Department that they hoped China would try harder to get six-party negotiations resumed.

The United States, Japan, China, South Korea and Russia hope to negotiate an end to North Korea's nuclear program in exchange for security assurances and economic benefits.

Talks were supposed to be resumed last September, but North Korea (search) withdrew its promise to attend. Since then, North Korea and the United States have been exchanging angry rhetoric.

Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, denounced North Korea on Sunday as a bully and called its leader, Kim Jong Il, "not a good person."

On Saturday, North Korea called President Bush a "philistine" and a "hooligan."

The blunt aspersions were similar to those two years ago between Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton and Pyongyang that have become an issue in Bolton's struggle for Senate confirmation as the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Critics have called Bolton undiplomatic for his verbal attacks on North Korea.

Rice, by contrast, used a measure of diplomatic ambiguity in her message Monday to North Korea. But it was clearly intended to be a tough one.

"I don't think anyone is confused about the ability of the United States to deter, both on behalf of itself and on behalf of its allies, North Korea's nuclear ambitions or gains on the (Korean) Peninsula," she said.

"We have, after all, a very strong alliance with South Korea and a very strong alliance with Japan. And, of course, the United States maintains significant — and I want to underline significant — deterrent capability of all kinds in the Asia-Pacific region," she said.