WASHINGTON North Korea and Iran have a long way to go to get off the Bush administration's list of nuclear threats, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
In light of last week's retrenchment of U.S. claims that Iran is now seeking an atomic weapon and word of new diplomatic and cultural outreach to North Korea, Rice was asked whether the United States still considers those nations part of President Bush's post-Sept. 11 "axis of evil."
"They are clearly still states about which there are significant proliferation concerns," Rice said during an interview at her State Department office. "It would be very irresponsible not to deal with those dangers."
During the wide-ranging interview, Rice took responsibility for the Blackwater Worldwide debacle. "Of course, anything that happens in this department, I'm ultimately responsible," she said.
She would not comment on the specifics of the September killing of 17 Iraqi civilians by private Blackwater security guards working for the State Department. That was the largest of several black marks on Rice's leadership over the past year.
Rice said she believed her staff and the Pentagon had developed adequate rules for contractors to prevent a repeat of the incident, which led the department's diplomatic security chief to resign.
On North Korea, Rice was cautious. She spoke a day after the New York Philharmonic announced it would play a concert in the North Korean capital and a week after word of a personal letter from President Bush to the leader of the communist nation, Kim Jong Il.
"This is not a regime that the United States is prepared to engage broadly" until the North has completely scrapped its nuclear weapons program, Rice said. "If we are going to engage it broadly, it's clear in the program that we have laid out how that would happen, after denuclearization."
The closed, secretive country exploded a nuclear device last year but agreed months later to accept economic and energy incentives if it gave up its weapons.
North Korea shut down its main nuclear reactor and has begun to put it out of commission; U.S. officials have said the work is going well. It is supposed to be complete by year's end.
Rice said neither the orchestra's upcoming trip, which the State Department helped arrange, nor Bush's letter should indicate an easing in the administration's resolve to confront North Korea.
"What matters first and foremost is that we deal with the nuclear weapons programs, all of them, of the North Koreans," Rice said. "It remains a country that is dangerously armed and a considerable threat on both the proliferation front and its own program."
The letter delivered this month offered the possibility for better relations with the United States if North Korea lives up to the deal it made, and underscored U.S. expectations. While unremarkable in content, the letter was an unprecedented symbolic gesture to a leader Bush has ridiculed and ostracized.
Rice called it simply part of the "active diplomacy" under way to resolve the nuclear questions.
At the same time, the classically trained pianist said she was pleased that at least some North Koreans would be able to get a glimpse of the outside world when the Philharmonic performs Feb. 26.
"I think it's a good thing that there are efforts to help North Korea open up to the world," she said. "I don't think that there are any people in the world who are more isolated than the North Koreans and it would be a very good thing if there could be some sunshine into that world."
Iran is an obstacle throughout much of the administration's foreign policy, and the U.S. claim that the clerical government is trying to build a bomb has been an organizing principle.
In a reassessment, U.S. intelligence agencies last week said Iran once had a weapons program but shelved it four years ago.
Rice brushed aside Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's suggestion that the findings of the National Intelligence Estimate, or NIE, could open better relations with the United States.
She said Tehran still needs to account for its past secret nuclear weapons activities and stop nuclear development that alarmed the West. Iran claims its program is meant to produce civilian nuclear energy.
"Since they have embraced the NIE, I assume that they are embracing the entire thing," Rice said archly. "And that means that they must have had a weapons program and that means that they have a lot to answer for."