Rice's shuttle diplomacy comes as signs emerge that US patience is running out over the six-party negotiations that North Korea has kept on hold since June.

She will fly to Japan on Friday before heading to South Korea and China, where she will seek to hammer out a strategy with the three key parties to the talks despite their differences over tactics.

 

North Korea, which last month said it had built a nuclear weapon, has cited different reasons for staying away from the negotiating table, including that it needs an apology from Rice for labelling it an "outpost of tyranny".

 

Asked if she would apologise, Rice said: "I am not going to get into a debate on semantics with the North Koreans.

 

"There is a lot at stake here for the North Koreans, and they really should come back to the talks and stop trying to change the subject," she told ABC News late on Thursday in Islamabad, halfway through her first trip to Asia as the newly appointed secretary of state.

 

Flexibility rejected

 

The United States has rejected its Asian partners' calls to show greater flexibility to coax North Korea back to the talks.

 

North Korea is refusing to
continue in the six-nation talks

Instead, it wants them, and particularly the talks' host, China, to use their leverage to make the communist country resume negotiations that offer Pyongyang economic aid and security guarantees for scrapping its nuclear programmes.

 

Democrats have criticised US President George Bush for failing to prevent, through the talks, the build-up of the suspected arsenal of a country he called an "axis of evil," along with pre-war Iraq and Iran.

 

After three slow-moving rounds and months of North Korean stalling, Christopher Hill, whom Rice has nominated to be her point man for the region, said this week: "We need to see some progress here. If we don't, we need to look at other ways to deal with this."

 

Rice said ahead of her trip that after discussing the negotiations with the other governments, she would "see where we are and what other steps need to be taken".

 

Sanctions

 

Some Bush administration hardliners want to end the talks, which also include Russia, and confront and isolate North Korea by reporting it to the United Nations for possible sanctions. 

 

One US official, who asked not to be named, said he hoped Rice would use her trip to show the partners that although she had tried to save the talks, it was time to call them off because of the lack of progress.

 

"The trip should be a way of checking the boxes so that the plug can then be pulled on the talks if nothing happens."

 

Ban on imports

 

In Japan, Rice will press Tokyo to lift its ban on US beef imports imposed in 2003 after the US reported its first case of mad cow disease. The imports are worth more than $1 billion a year.

 

Rice is unlikely to win a commitment for a Japanese timetable to end the ban despite intensifying US complaints that Tokyo is moving too slowly after it agreed in October to allow shipments of beef from young US cattle.

 

But Japan, which has been one of Bush's top backers in Asia, is expected during the visit to agree with Rice that China's military build-up is a concern and needs to be counterbalanced with alliances such as the US-Japanese partnership.

 

The two countries are worried China has stoked tensions with Taiwan, an island it regards as a renegade province that needs to return to the fold.

 

Last month, in a shift, Japan declared it shared a mutual security goal with the US "to encourage the peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue" - a move China rejected as meddling in its affairs.