Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) cautioned Sunday that North Korea's decision to resume nuclear disarmament talks does not mean the United States is any closer to its long-standing goal of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

"It's only a start," Rice said at a news conference. "It is the goal of the talks to have progress."

As Rice was arriving here Saturday night, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan (search) was telling U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill that his government was prepared to return to the bargaining table during the week of July 25 after a yearlong boycott.

"The issue now for North Korea is to make the strategic choice to give up it's nuclear weapons program," Rice said. "This not just a concern of the United States. This is a concern of all of North Korea's neighbors."

Rice spoke near the end of a 20-hour visit here in which she met with President Hu Jintao, Vice Premier Wen Jiabao and Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing.

She reaffirmed her concern over "the significant pace of the Chinese military buildup." She also listed several other points of friction but added "the relationship still has more positive than negative" aspects.

During her discussions, she said she also raised concerns about China's record on human rights and religious freedom.

After her visit to China, Rice was flying to the Thai resort city of Phuket (search), which suffered widespread devastation in December's tsunami.

The six-party discussions, in addition to the United States and North Korea, involve China, South Korea, Japan and Russia. Three rounds of discussions were held during 2003 and 2004, producing scant progress toward the U.S. goal of verifiable dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

As an inducement, North Korea would seek significant economic benefits if it makes a credible commitment to disarmament.

Rice said North Korea's decision to return to the talks followed an intense flurry of diplomatic activity. She said South Korea and China in particular showed North Korea "what the path might look like" for their impoverished country if they become a non-nuclear country.

She also said Beijing should hold direct talks with the government of Taiwan in addition to the Taiwanese opposition leaders who have visited the mainland in recent months.

"We hope that China extends its contact to the elected government of Taiwan," Rice told reporters. "We encourage as much contact as possible."

Taiwan and China split in 1949. Beijing (search) claims the self-ruled island as part of its territory and has threatened repeatedly to invade. The two sides have no formal relations and haven't had high-level official contact since the 1990s.

On another issue, Rice also said Afghanistan still needs the help of American security forces and rejected a call from a regional group led by China and Russia that the U.S. withdraw its troops.