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U.S., partners considering options on North Korea, Rice says

BEIJING—Although the United States and its partners are working for a diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated Monday that they've also started to discuss what to do if North Korea doesn't return to negotiations.

"We at this point are committed to the six-party talks because we really do believe that that's the best way to resolve this issue," Rice said at a news conference, after a reporter noted that reporters had been told that she'd started discussing next steps if North Korea stays away from the talks.

The six-party talks are the best option because North Korea's neighbors all have different kinds of leverage, Rice said, adding: "We did spend the overwhelming bulk of our time here trying to figure out how to push it forward, how to make it work. Obviously, everybody is aware that there are other options in the international system."

That apparently was a reference to referring North Korea to the United Nations Security Council for sanctions, although Rice didn't specify what options were discussed.

Rice went on her first Asian tour as secretary of state wanting to stress democracy and not be limited to the topic of North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

But North Korea dominated Rice's discussions in Beijing, and earlier in Seoul and Tokyo. The CIA believes it's possible that North Korea has had one or two nuclear weapons for as long as a decade and that it may have started making more using spent fuel rods since it threw out international monitors two years ago. The Defense Intelligence Agency has estimated that North Korea may have as many as 13 nuclear weapons.

Rice got no immediate assurances from Chinese President Hu Jintao and other top officials that China, North Korea's main ally and benefactor, would take additional steps to nudge North Korea back to the talks, but she made it clear that she wasn't discouraged.

"Everyone is ready to restart the talks in a spirit of constructive discussion. There's a lot on the table for North Korea," she said, listing the enticements she has been talking about during the trip: assurances that the United States views North Korea as a sovereign country and has no intention to attack; discussions about meeting energy needs; and, for the short term, fuel delivery by some countries.

Besides China and the United States, the others involved in the talks are South Korea, Japan and Russia.

Rice used a press conference at the end of her six-country journey to deliver a strong appeal to the Chinese government to give its people greater religious freedom.

She said it was an "extraordinary experience" for her as someone who holds deeply to Christianity to attend a Sunday evening service in Beijing. The large Gangwashi Protestant church is part of China's state-controlled religious organizations, but "I don't think there was any doubt about the believers who were there and about their commitment to their religion," Rice said.

She said she told Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing that religious freedom was "something that we have to work on every day" and would be a major factor in U.S.-China relations.

The church service "underscored for me that people must have an opportunity to exercise their religious beliefs, to exercise their religious traditions, to do so in an atmosphere that is free of intimidation, that in fact allows for the expansion of religion and communities of believers," she said.

She called religion "a force for good, for stability and for compassion in societies that are undergoing rapid change."

The officially atheist Communist Party in China allows religious expression as long as it's done within the confines of government-controlled organizations. The government has arrested and jailed people who worship outside this system and has insisted that Chinese Catholics officially sever relations with the pope. It also has restricted religion in restive regions—Buddhism in Tibet and Islam in Xinjiang.

Rice said it was important for her to attend church on Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, leading up to Easter.

"I'm a minister's daughter," she said. "I've never missed a Palm Sunday service in my entire life."

Ending a day that also included discussions with Chinese leaders about human rights, tensions with Taiwan and economic issues—and at the very end of a weeklong trip that began in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan—Rice grabbed a few minutes for something fun before flying home.

She met with three Chinese Olympic skaters and some children and teenagers in training at a small indoor ice rink in the shopping center at her hotel complex.

One little girl in the group, who spoke English, asked Rice, who also trained as a skater, what her most difficult jump had been.

Rice seemed amused and told her a double toe loop. The secretary of state, who said she hadn't skated in about seven years, kept her shoes on.

"I used to spend a lot of time on the ice," she said, "but I was not nearly as good as these skaters."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Condoleezza Rice

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