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Rice Visits Asia to Discuss North Korea Nuclear Issue

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves Washington late this week on a four-nation Asia trip expected to focus on the stalled talks on North Korea's nuclear program. Officials say she will break recent precedent and not attend annual talks with ASEAN foreign ministers later this month in Laos.

Ms. Rice will visit China, Thailand, South Korea and Japan in the trip beginning Friday and spanning six days.

It is her second trip to the area in three months and reflects the Bush administration's heavy focus on regional issues, especially the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program.

The Chinese-sponsored talks have been stalled for more than a year, and State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters here the blame rests with Pyongyang and its refusal to return to the bargaining table.

"We have been urging for quite some time North Korea to return to the six-party talks without precondition and to engage in a constructive manner. That's, at this moment, the holdup to having another round of talks. We have been in consultation and on this trip we will consult again with other members of the six-party talks about the way forward, but we still urge the North Koreans' return to the table and engage in a constructive manner. We have not heard that they would do so at this point," he said.

North Korea refused to attend a scheduled fourth round of negotiations in Beijing last September, citing what it said is a hostile U.S. policy towards the reclusive communist state.

It has recently said it intends to return to the talks at some point but has not provided a date.

At the last round, in June of 2004, the United States presented a proposal offering multilateral security guarantees and aid, if Pyongyang verifiably and irreversibly ended its nuclear weapons effort.

North Korea has criticized the U.S. proposal in its official media, but has yet to formally respond.

Spokesman McCormack said in addition to the nuclear issue, Ms. Rice will also discuss on her trip the fight against terrorism and transnational crime, and recovery efforts from last December's tsunami disaster in the Indian Ocean region.

The Secretary's stop in Thailand will be at the island resort of Phuket, one of the places hardest-hit by the tsunami triggered by a massive earthquake off the Indonesian coast.

State Department officials confirmed meanwhile that Ms. Rice will not attend the annual regional forum with foreign ministers of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which is being held at the end of the month in the Laotian capital, Vientiane.

U.S. Secretaries of State have regularly attended the ASEAN forums since the 1980s but officials said that because of a scheduling conflict, Ms. Rice will send her deputy, Robert Zoellick.

The Secretary of State is understood to be planning a trip to sub-Saharan Africa later this month, which will be her first to that region since assuming office in January.