Jeffrey LewisNo Hostile Intent

Condi says what Don wants. Does he dress her, too?

Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post has an interesting article on U.S. rhetoric toward North Korea.

After North Korea declared that it possessed nuclear weapons, I asked two questions: do they really have nuclear weapons and why share this information now.

In the case of the second question—why now?—I suggested that the simplest explanation was the one provided by the North Koreans: That US rhetoric revealed no change in US policy.

Kessler’s article sheds some light into why North Korea might place a large amount of emphasis on U.S. rhetoric.

Kessler begins by quoting the Nautilus Institute’s Peter Hayes to establish that North Koreans monitor US rhetoric “like hovering hawks.” “They monitor American rhetoric, statements and the policy process much more closely than we monitor them,” Hayes told the Post.

In particular, Kessler writes, North Korea has been looking for the three word phrase “no hostile intent” to describe U.S. policy. Diplomats told the Post that Pyongyang believes that phrase extends beyond a pledge not to invade, conveying an implicit message of respect between two peer nations.

Kessler then documents then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s almost ritual use of the phrase, including multiple statements by Powell implying that the President had also used the phrase.

What is particularly fascinating, is that Bush himself has never used that phrase (nor has new Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice).

In fact, Administration hard liners, led by Donald Rumsfeld, successfully had the language removed from State Department talking points:

Powell’s language on “no hostile intent” was picked up by the State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, when he briefed the news media in the weeks after Powell’s television appearance. But the language disturbed hard-liners in the administration, who believed that North Korea had clearly demonstrated a hostile policy toward the United States—and that the phrase limited the administration’s options in using economic and other weapons to pressure Pyongyang. They began to press for its elimination from the administration’s talking points.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld raised the issue with Rice, who was then national security adviser, an official familiar with the conversation said. Rice agreed that the language should be dropped, and that only Bush’s earlier comment about not attacking and invading be used.

What I find so fascinating about this story is how sensitive Rumsfeld was to a very specific phrase (this is something that would surprise most orthodox political scientists who believe “talk is cheap”) and how accurate the North Koreans are in reading the absence of the phrase “no hostile intent” as an indicator that hardliners are not sufficiently marginalized to make cutting a deal worthwhile.


  1. Arrigo (History)

    My goodness what a bleak picture this paints and how well does it confirm my fears.

    It seems that “Kremlinology” has now become “Whitehouseology” where every statement made by the US administration is dissected by the DPRK (and I wouldn’t be surprised if others did the same).

    The more I read DPRK statements the more I have the feeling that they are reading the US administration’s policy with pragmatism and responding “in kind”. No wishy-washy statements like the Iranians but straight to the point: “have nukes, will use”. I guess their gamble is that by being this upfront they are effectively calling the US’ bluff: can they really open a 2nd front in the Korean peninsula? If the US doesn’t walk in and kick them then this implies that the giant is weak, etc. etc.

    At the very least they know they have another year (Bush recently commented that the Iraq “exit strategy” will have to wait another 12 months)…

    The problem I see with this is that it encourages others to follow the DPRK down a very dangerous path: “if the US doesn’t intervene it means it can’t stretch itself so we can mess about too”.

    It is a bit of an issue when the world’s “Global policeman” and enforcer of the “Pax Americana” (sort of…) can only cover one smallish region at a time.