Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that North Korea must come to new disarmament talks ready to deal, or there is no point in holding the session.
"I do think that after having set off a nuclear test that the North Koreans need to do something to demonstrate that they actually are committed to denuclearization that goes beyond words," Rice said. "Because after having set off a nuclear test there's some skepticism about that."
North Korea's rogue nuclear program is high on the agenda for an Asian economic summit this week, although the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum appeared divided over what to say publicly.
Speaking shortly after Rice's remarks, President Bush told an audience at the National University of Singapore that "for the sake of peace, it is vital that the nations of this region send a message to North Korea that the proliferation of nuclear technology to hostile regimes or terrorist networks will not be tolerated."
The North's nuclear weapons test on Oct. 9 has had a chilling effect across the region, raising the stakes in the country's traditional brinksmanship to gain aid and security guarantees.
The nuclear threat from Iran is also a topic at the summit, which President Bush will attend this weekend. Bush and Rice are using the forum to press their case for tougher United Nations sanctions against Iran with the two holdout nations, Russia and China, whose votes will be essential.
Rice and other delegates at the forum conferred on the North Korean nuclear issue. The informal breakfast gathering was a substitute for a smaller and more structured session that the United States and Japan had hoped to hold on the sidelines of the APEC meeting.
China, which chairs six-nation talks aimed at shuttering Pyongyang's nuclear program, strongly opposed holding a session that excluded the North, which does not participate in APEC.
"The nuclear test has meant that we have turned a new chapter," Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said following a meeting with Rice. "There's no going back. As one minister said, the egg cannot be unscrambled. So we take it from there. Pressure must be put on the North Koreans. It must be made crystal clear to them that what they are doing is not acceptable."
The United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia have offered impoverished North Korea a package of economic, political and energy incentives if it gives up its nuclear weapons. The North agreed to the vaguely worded deal in September 2005, but backed away before any hard details were worked out.
The skepticism Rice said she heard at breakfast arises from worries that the North may be using an agreement to hold talks to stall for time and better footing in the six-way negotiations.
North Korea announced on Oct. 31 that it was prepared to return to the negotiating table after a one-year boycott. Host China wants to hold that session in December, but Rice indicated that timetable could slip.
Although committed to holding the talks, the United States wants to know ahead of time that North Korea is prepared to take real steps toward dismantling its nuclear program, Rice said. In return, the five nations bargaining with North Korea are ready to provide economic and other incentives.
"I think it doesn't make sense for us to have talks unless we think that it's going to be fruitful," Rice told reporters traveling with her. "It certainly doesn't make sense to go back just to talk."
On Iran, Rice said she remains confident that the U.N. Security Council will approve sanctions against Tehran over its disputed nuclear program, although negotiations have bogged down.
"There is willingness to have a Security Council resolution. The question is what is that resolutions going to say, and how broad is it going to be. I think we just have to keep working through it."
Washington's U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, said Wednesday there were still "wide gaps" between the Russians and European nations leading the diplomatic effort. Asked whether there had been any progress since the talks began, Bolton said, "Well, we didn't make any progress today — let's leave it at that."
Oil-rich Iran has claimed it has a right to a nuclear program it says is aimed at producing energy. But the United States suspects Tehran has ambitions to make nuclear weapons.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisted Wednesday the West will gradually back down in its standoff with Iran and eventually accept its nuclear program.
"While the West tries to thwart the progress of our nation, time is on our side," Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Sanandaj, the capital city of Iran's Kurdistan province.