SEOUL — In an effort to reassure South Koreans and help draw North Korea back to international talks on its nuclear weapons program, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today that the United States was trying to spread freedom, not war, in Asia.
In several public appearances in South Korea, her fifth stop on a six-nation Asian trip, Rice insisted that the Bush administration was not planning military action against North Korea over the regime's continued refusal to give up its nuclear weapons -- a scenario that some South Koreans fear could draw them into a devastating war.
"I don't know how to say more clearly," Rice said with slight exasperation in an interview with South Korean Internet journalists today. "We have absolutely no desire to attack North Korea. We have no reason to want to do so.... We understand that North Korea is a sovereign state."
At the same time, Rice said, the U.S. is concerned about the lack of liberty in communist North Korea. "The United States is always going to speak up for people who live without freedom," she said. "It's who we are."
Despite the reassuring language, Rice's visit offered constant reminders of U.S. military might and the rising tensions over North Korea's Feb. 10 announcement that it has developed nuclear weapons.
The first stop on Rice's itinerary Saturday was Camp Tango, a fortified bunker dug into a mountainside that would be used as a joint command center for U.S. and South Korean troops in the event of a war with North Korea.
Speaking to U.S. and South Korean troops at the site, Rice described North Korea as a "state that is not democratic, that is not free and does not have the best interests of its people at heart."
Her remarks are likely to rankle North Korean officials, who are still bristling over Rice's characterization of their country as an "outpost of tyranny" during her confirmations hearings in January. The North has demanded an apology as a condition to return to stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear program, something that Rice has refused.
Rice also appeared unwavering on another North Korean condition -- that it be allowed to negotiate one-on-one with the United States during the next round of multinational talks.
In an embarrassing and confusing moment during a televised joint news conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon, the South Korean implied that the United States had agreed to "direct dialogue within the framework of the six-party talks."
But Rice brushed aside any suggestion that Washington had made a concession. "Everyone can't talk at once, so of course we're talking to each other," she said. "There is sometimes direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea.... What we don't intend to do is separate out the United States and North Korea."
The six-party talks -- which include South Korea, China, Japan and Russia -- have been stalled since June. With the exception of Japan, the other countries have become increasingly frustrated with the U.S. refusal to talk directly to Pyongyang.
Even South Korea's conservative opposition, normally unequivocal in its support of the Bush administration, called last week for the United States to take a "more realistic" approach.
"There have been three rounds of six-party talks, but we can only say the situation has significantly worsened," Park Geun Hye, the opposition leader, said last week in Washington.
To a large extent, Rice's visit was an effort to reach out to younger South Koreans who have often been opposed to the Bush administration. Polls taken last year showed 72% of South Koreans were hostile to President Bush and 85% opposed the Iraq war, although South Korea has sent troops to support the U.S. effort there.
Rice was greeted upon her arrival Saturday night by college students from Ewha Women's University and the main event today was the interview with the Internet journalists.
For nearly an hour, Rice perched on a stool like a schoolteacher and lectured on the virtues of democracy. She pointed to South Koreans' uprising against the military dictatorship in the 1980s and to her own experience as a black woman who rose to the top ranks of government. "The last three secretaries of State have not been white men.... It is a testament to what can happen in a democracy."
Echoing language Bush has often used in reference to the Middle East, Rice added:
"I don't think there are any people anywhere in the world who don't desire to be free. It used to be said that Asians don't desire to be free.... You remember that talk about 'Asian values'? That used to be said about African-Americans.... When people say that there are cultures where freedom doesn't matter, it is almost patronizing to say that. I think it is really, really wrong."
Rice was to leave South Korea later today and travel to Beijing, the final stop on her trip