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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday defended the Bush administration's refusal to hold bilateral talks with North Korea in the face of Pyongyang's claim of a successful nuclear test.
In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Rice said having direct negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program, instead of negotiating in concert with its neighbors, would not be the right approach because the United States has less leverage to ensure the communist regime lives up to its agreements.
"The United States tried direct dialogue with the North Koreans in the '90s, and that resulted in the North Koreans signing onto agreements that they then didn't keep," she said. (Watch as Rice defends U.S. policy on North Korea -- 1:45 )
"And the United States didn't have the force of others, like China and South Korea, to say to the North Koreans, 'That was an agreement that you should have kept.' ...
"It's important not to go back down that road. It's important to bring the weight of China and South Korea and Japan and Russia to bear."
North Korea's nuclear test Monday was met with resounding criticism throughout the world. However, the test was not unexpected as the country had warned of its plans a week ago. (Full story)
U.S. intelligence sources on Tuesday expressed doubts about the magnitude of the blast, saying it was relatively small -- an indication that the test may not have gone as planned.
North Korea's official state-run news agency KCNA reported that "the nuclear test was conducted with indigenous wisdom and technology 100 percent. It marks a historic event as it greatly encouraged and pleased the KPA (Korean People's Army) and people that have wished to have powerful self-reliant defense capability." (Full N. Korea statement)
Rice said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il wanted a bilateral deal with the United States "because he doesn't want to face the pressure of other states that have leverage."
"What Kim Jong Il should understand is that if he verifiably gives up his nuclear weapons program, there is a better path," Rice said. "There's a better path through negotiations. There's a better path to an opening to the international system. There's a better path for his people who are oppressed and downtrodden and hungry." (Watch politicians argue over who "lost" N. Korea -- 2:57 )
The Bush administration has insisted any negotiations between the United States and North Korea occur within the framework of the six-party talks that also involve China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
The North Koreans withdrew from the six-party talks last year and have been pressing for direct negotiations with the United States outside of that framework.
The Bush approach differs from that of the Clinton administration, which negotiated directly with North Korea, resulting in a 1994 agreement that stipulated Pyongyang would not pursue development of nuclear weapons.
In return, the United States agreed to supply fuel oil to North Korea, which also received international help to build two light-water nuclear reactors to supply electricity.
Rice said that "it might have made perfectly good sense" at the time to try direct talks, but the fact that North Korea violated the 1994 pact shows the weakness of that strategy.
"When they cheated, we had no one to stand with us and say to the North Koreans, 'You've cheated, and that's a problem not just for the United States but for China and for Japan and for Russia and South Korea,' " she said.
Rice said that U.S. officials are still trying to determine whether North Korea detonated a nuclear device Monday.
"But we have to take the claim seriously because it is a political claim ... that tries to get the bargaining position of being a nuclear power," she said.
The secretary also said that the North Koreans should not be allowed to use their fears of a U.S. invasion as an "excuse" for them to pursue nuclear weapons.
"The United States of America doesn't have any intention to attack North Korea or to invade North Korea," Rice said. However, asked about a possible military option in response to the nuclear standoff, she said, "The president never takes any of his options off the table."
She added, "But the United States somehow, in a provocative way, trying to invade North Korea -- it's just not the case."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the U.S. tried bilateral talks with North Korea in the 1990s and the policy failed.
FACT BOXExisting sanctions against N. Korea
United States: Export of military items, restrictions on financial transactions and some limits on foreign aid and debt relief.
United Nations: The U.N. Security Council has barred nations from trading in material or technology for missiles or weapons of mass destruction with North Korea. A resolution imposing those restrictions passed on July 16, after the North conducted a series of missile tests.
Japan: Halted oil supplies to the North promised in a 1994 deal and imposed financial restrictions banning fund transfers and overseas remittances by individuals or groups with ties to North Korea's weapons programs.
Australia: Restricted fund transfers and overseas remittances by groups and individuals suspected of links to North Korea's weapons programs.
South Korea: Halted oil supplies.
Source: The Associated Press
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