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Rice urges North Korea to return to nuclear talks

News agency reports nation will bolster weapons arsenal
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday in Luxembourg.
An earlier version of this article included an image that was incorrectly identified as an aerial photograph of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear plant. The photo was actually a commercial satellite photo of a nuclear facility near Natanz, Iran.
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LUXEMBOURG (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, responding to North Korea's threat to increase its nuclear arsenal, said Thursday the nation should reconsider its decision to withdraw from nuclear disarmament talks or risk further isolation.

"This is an unfortunate move, most especially for the people of North Korea," Rice said, speaking in Luxembourg after talks with European Union officials. "It's very clear that all responsible members of the international community -- and especially North Korea's neighbors -- support the international framework as a way to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue."

Earlier in the day, North Korea's official news agency announced that Pyongyang would drop out of the six-nation talks and "bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal" because of what it called U.S. threats to topple its political system. (Full story)

Rice reiterated that the United States has no plans to attack North Korea, but is fully capable of defending itself against any threat.

"We are confident that the United States with our alliance with the Republic of Korea -- the South Koreans -- with our deterrent capability on the Korean Peninsula, that of course the United States and its allies can deal with any potential threat from North Korea. And North Korea, I think, understands that," Rice said. "But we are trying to give the North Koreans a different path."

The United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia have held three rounds of six-party talks since 2003, aimed at persuading the North to abandon its nuclear weapons development in return for economic and diplomatic rewards.

But no significant progress was reported in those talks, all hosted by China, North Korea's last remaining major ally. A fourth round of talks scheduled for last September did not take place because North Korea refused to attend, citing what it called a "hostile" U.S. policy.

Although North Korea has previously claimed to have the ability to produce nuclear weapons, Thursday's announcement is the first time it has publicly said it possesses them -- although it has said it possesses a nuclear deterrent.

That announcement came as no surprise, Rice said.

"We have for some time taken into account of the capacity of the North Koreans to perhaps have a few nuclear weapons," she said. "There is no definitive answer to how many, but this has been since the mid-'90s that the United States has assumed that the North Koreans could make such steps."

U.S. efforts to fight global nuclear weapons proliferation has gained a lot of attention during Rice's diplomatic tour of Europe and the Middle East -- particularly Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program and European negotiations with Tehran.

Iran has refused to halt its nuclear program, saying it is only intended for peaceful energy production -- not weapons.

On Wednesday, Rice said Iran must live up to its international obligations to halt its nuclear program or "the next steps are in the offing."

"And I think everybody understands what the 'next steps' mean," Rice told reporters after a meeting with NATO foreign ministers and European Union officials.

"It's obvious that if Iran cannot be brought to live up to its international obligations that, in fact, the [International Atomic Energy Agency] statutes would suggest that Iran has to be referred to the U.N. Security Council," she said.

In recent months, negotiators from France, Britain and Germany have been trying to coax Iran to fully disclose the parameters of its nuclear program and abandon efforts to produce nuclear fuel in exchange for economic and political incentives. (Full story)

Rice's tour follows her recent swearing-in as secretary of state. Her stops included France, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom, Poland, Germany, Israel, the West Bank and Turkey. Her tour is in advance of President Bush's European trip set for February 22-25.

CNN's Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.

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