Jeffrey LewisIs the Bush Administration Too Divided To Deal With North Korea?

Chun Dong-young and the Il-iminator himself.

Kim Jong Il reportedly told South Korean Unification Minister Chun Dong-young (right), “If the United States treats the North in a friendly manner, we will possess not one nuclear weapon.”

Kim also expressed a willingness to return to Six Party talks and, as part of a final agreement, accept intrusive inspections and rejoin the NPT.

Officially, the Bush Administration was unimpressed.

Secretary Rice, in a friendly interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace, declined to back away from Paula Dobriansky’s description of North Korea as “an outpost of tyranny” and dared the North Koreans to “set the date” for resuming Six Party Talks.

Privately, some Administration offcials fumed about the meeting with Chun. An interesting comment turned up in the Japanese Asahi Shimbun (via the Chosun Ilbo) which quoted a State Department official calling Seoul “North Korea’s spokesman” and the Kim-Chun meeting “just too much.”

I still believe Kim Jong Il is waiting for some signal that the Administration has its hardliners under control before returning to talks. North Korean calls for respect—expressed as demands for Washington to utter specific phrases such as “no hostile intent”—are tests to determine if Washington can get itself together before starting another round of talks.

Frankly, it’s not a bad idea to wait until your intelocutor has his shit together before sitting down to talk—particularly if you are producing plutonium in the meantime.


Kim’s skepticism seems reasonable in light of what Chris Nelson calls “an embarrassing ‘secret’ discussion among Korea policy experts” that “many personally doubt the President’s sincerity in seeking real negotiations with N. Korea.”

Chris mentioned that debate as an introduction to a remarkable op-ed by Donald Gregg and Don Oberdorfer in the Washington Post, who admit receiving a “written personal message from Kim to Bush” in November 2002—shortly before North Korea ejected IAEA inspectors. The contents of the message, and the Bush Administration’s response (or lack thereof), are enlightening:

“If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures non-aggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of a new century.” Further, he declared, “If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly.”

We took the message to senior officials at the White House and State Department and urged the administration to follow up on Kim’s initiative, which we have not made public until now. Then deep in secret planning and a campaign of public persuasion for the invasion of Iraq, the administration spurned engagement with North Korea. Kim moved within weeks to expel the inspectors from the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and reopen the plutonium-producing facilities that had been shut down since 1994 under an agreement negotiated with the Clinton administration.

I find two things interesting about the Gregg and Oberdorfer op-ed.

First, I am beginning to understand how the Bush Administration is creating an impressive cadre of Republicans who think their policy is fucked.

Gregg—Bush I Ambassador to South Korea—told FRONTLINE in 2003 the Bush administration “never had a policy. It’s had an attitude—hostility.” Gregg joins former envoy Jack Pritchard, who described the president as having “a rare form of Tourette Syndrome in which in an uncontrollable and unexplained manner he will just explode and talk about Kim Jong Il; perhaps as his chief negotiator is, oh, say Tokyo, Beijing, talking up the advantages of a policy.”

Second, I notice the North Koreans have made a habit out of appealing to important persons outside the Bush Administration—first Gregg, later Bill Richardson.

It seems to me the North Koreans have concluded—correctly—that the Bush Administration is fundamentally broken over divisions between pragmatists and hard-liners. These efforts are designed to get around that bureaucracy in the hope that Bush himself may force a resolution.

That conclusion would also explain why the North Koreans refused to negotiate with John Bolton—perhaps advice from the Libyans who managed to get a deal only after Bush removed Bolton from the portfolio. Fear of a North Korean end-run around the hard-liners would also explain Bolton’s efforts to use NSA intercepts to monitor Richardson and U.S. diplomats like Jack Pritchard.

What does Kim do, though, if Bush himself is the obstacle?


Note to John Ruwitch of Reuters: Better check yourself. Ruwitch wrote

The United States, for its part, says it has no hostile intent and that North Korea is just making excuses.

The phrase “no hostile intent” is a special one and Ruwitch has it all wrong. The President has never used the phrase, nor has any other US official after Donald Rumsfeld reportedly intervened to strike it from Colin Powell’s talking points.

The Administration is now dead-set against uttering those three words. A senior State Department official told Sonni Efron at the Los Angeles Times:

“The problem is that it’s a North Korean formulation,” said the senior official, who in keeping with diplomatic protocol declined to be named. “We don’t want to be reduced to sort of a circus animal doing an act, being told to jump through various hoops at the behest of the North Koreans. We have told them really all they need to know” about U.S. policy.

Ruwitch is apparently here in Beijing. Maybe I’ll have the chance to set him straight.


  1. EARL (History)

    It really makes you wonder what the source of W’s animosity is. It also really makes me wonder about the ‘great’ team, so on message and united, that this admin is supposed to be.

    Are they just not capable of dealing with Iraq and Korea at the same time? Makes it very risky to build that ‘evil axis’ thing if we can’t deal with more than one at a time. Where is that Colin Powell when we really need him anyway???????????