U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves Washington Saturday on a mission to South Korea, China and Japan expected to be dominated by the issue of North Korea's nuclear program. Rice Friday ruled out a stop in North Korea. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department said weeks ago that Rice would attend Monday's inauguration in Seoul of South Korean President-elect Lee Myong-bak.

But the trip, spanning six-days, has taken on added importance with the slow-down in implementation of the six-party agreement under which North Korea is to end its nuclear program.

Pyongyang reached a final agreement last February with its negotiating partners - the United States, South Korea, Japan Russia and China - to scrap the program in exchange for energy aid and other benefits.

However implementation is lagging behind schedule with Pyongyang having failed to meet a year-end 2007 deadline for fully disclosing its nuclear activities and holdings including weapons.

A year-end goal of permanently disabling North Korea's main nuclear reactor also was not reached, with Pyongyang complaining of delays in deliveries of promised fuel oil.

In a talk with reporters on the eve of her departure for Seoul, Rice ruled out any surprise stop in Pyongyang, saying that the U.S. envoy to the nuclear talks Christopher Hill has already made clear to North Korea what needs to be done.

"I don't plan to (visit). I just don't think that its something that's useful at this time or that is warranted. Chris Hill recently had those contacts and he'll continue to have them. I think that everybody knows what needs to happen here. North Korea is quite aware of what it needs to do, and I do look forward to talking to the Chinese, the Japanese and the South Koreans on how we can move this forward," he said.

Though the process is behind schedule, Rice said the progress made in disabling North Korea's reactor complex has already taken the six-party process farther than previous disarmament efforts.

Her Asia trip coincides with an unprecedented visit to North Korea next week by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Rice said that visit in itself can hardly be expected to affect North Korea's rigid communist society but that change over the long-term is possible.

"My hope is that over time, the interaction with the outside world, indeed the kinds of things that we're doing in the six-party talks, indeed the kinds of things that are envisaged as the six-party framework moves forward, which is that there should be more engagement and opening up of North Korea to the outside world, will in fact have an effect," he said.

In Seoul, Rice is to have private meetings with the new president, Mr. Lee, and key members of his government, which is more conservative than its predecessor and is considered likely to take a harder line toward North Korea.

Her talks in China starting Tuesday are expected to deal with global issues including efforts in the U.N. Security Council for a new sanctions resolution against Iran because of its nuclear program.