Did Bush bungle relations with North Korea?

"He said a really stupid thing. He shouldn't say stupid things in the future."

Published March 15, 2001 11:12PM (EST)

Following a week of disjointed messages from the Bush administration, the North Korean government has taken deliberate steps this week to show its anger at the United States. On Tuesday, the North Koreans canceled diplomatic meetings with the South Korean government, meetings very much encouraged by Western powers worried about global security threats should tension continue between the two countries. On Wednesday, the official state-sanctioned media followed up by roundly criticizing Bush.

Did Bush mean to escalate the rhetoric against the North Korean government? Yes, of course.

But to this degree? That is unclear. And Wednesday, foreign policy experts of both political stripes tried to parse the administration's language -- including a classic botched sentence from Bush -- to try and determine how well this bodes for the vaunted foreign policy strength of the new administration.

"They really don't have their act together," observes Joel Wit, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and formerly a State Department official responsible for implementing a 1994 agreement with North Korea that was to have ended the country's processing of plutonium at a factory suspected to be manufacturing nuclear weapons.

North Korea has been a persistent threat for decades, building an arsenal of chemical, biological and other weapons -- apparently even nuclear weapons. As other Communist anachronisms have fallen (like the USSR) or slightly evolved (like China), North Korea continues as a beacon of oppression, militaristic lust and state-sanctioned weirdness (its state-ordered worship of its Lenin-like dead "Eternal President" is but one example of this). U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea are concerned that North Korea could launch an attack against them -- or even against the United States -- in a matter of seconds, which has provided a key argument for the United States' development of a missile defense shield.

The case study begins March 6, the day before South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, honored with last year's Nobel Peace Prize, met with President Bush, hoping to influence the new administration's views on the region before any policy had been set in stone.

That day, Secretary of State Colin Powell, during an appearance with European Union President and Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh and others, seemed moderate in tone and tenor when he mentioned that he and Lindh had discussed, among other matters, "how to encourage North Korea to comply with its nonproliferation obligations."

"As I said previously, and especially in my confirmation hearings, we do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off," Powell said. "Some promising elements were left on the table, and we'll be examining those elements."

This enraged GOP hawks, who view Clinton's policy toward North Korea as dishonest and disingenuous, and as coddling North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as he builds up an arsenal. Clinton administration foreign policy experts praised Kim for his steps toward peace. And though Powell called Kim a "dictator" during his January confirmation hearings before the Senate, his remarks about "picking up" where Clinton left off surely raised continued fears that Powell is too moderate.

The next day, the Bush administration's position seemed completely turned around.

The less conciliatory views of the GOP base had clearly been expressed both behind closed doors and in the meeting with South Korean President Kim, views shared by Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. "There are real concerns about the absence of real change by North Korea," Gaffney says. "And with an absence of any real changes, suggestions of concessions, political legitimization and perhaps even assistance is pretty much a debatable proposition."

Right after the meeting with President Kim -- but just minutes before Presidents Bush and Kim appeared at a press conference -- Powell was trotted out to make brief comments to the press. And he presented a very different message than he had the day before. "The president forcefully made the point that we are undertaking a full review of our relationship with North Korea," Powell said. "There was some suggestion that imminent negotiations are about to begin -- that is not the case."

"The president has made it clear that he understands the nature of regime in Pyongyang and will not be fooled by the nature of that regime and will view it in a very, very realistic, realistic way," Powell said.

At the joint briefing minutes later, this newer, more hard-line stance against North Korea -- the one advanced in the administration by Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- reared its head in comments made by President Kim. Bush had been "very frank and honest in sharing with me his perceptions about the nature of North Korea and the North Korean leader," Kim said, "and this is very important for me to take back home and to consider."

Bush then elaborated on his concerns. "Part of the problem in dealing with North Korea," he said, "there's not very much transparency. We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements."

This was not his most carefully enunciated statement of the day. As it turns out, the U.S. has only one agreement with North Korea -- the 1994 plutonium agreement that Wit supervised. So which "agreements" were the president referring to? White House spokesmen told reporters that Bush was speaking about possible future agreements.

"That's how the president speaks," one told the New York Times.

But even as this spokesman was trying to explain rather lamely "how" Bush "speaks," other members of the Bush White House were offering an altogether different citation from the Bush-to-English, English-to-Bush dictionaries.

That afternoon, in a background briefing for the press by two "senior administration officials," the following exchange took place:

"President Bush said at the end of the meeting that he was concerned that North Korea was not complying with some of its existing agreements," one reporter asked. "I assume that he meant by that the 1994 agreed framework. Could you tell us what exactly he --"

"No, I don't think that would be an assumption to make, because there's no evidence that Korea is not complying with that," said one of the senior administration officials. The official said that Bush may have been referring to "some logistics situation difficulties ... But there has been no indication of them violating the agreed framework."

No violation? But Bush had said they were violating "agreements." The official tried to come up with an answer again. "I'm not trying to put words in the president's mouth, and I'll leave his statement stand. But what there is concern about is the verification of existing arrangements ... There are transparency questions that North Korea is not a transparent state, and therefore we do not have a 100 percent ability to monitor these agreements. So his concern about them is not of a specific instance of violation, but our confidence in whether or not these agreements are being violated or not."

Aaargh! "I don't want to be too picky on this, but we only have one agreement with North Korea that I know of," the reporter said.

"Right," agreed the senior administration official. "When he said, agreement arrangements, what he's talking about is the proposal that was on the table at the end of the administration wasn't verifiable, in his mind ... He was referring to the totality of it in the sense that I was saying that he's concerned about there not being verifiable --"

"But that wasn't an agreement," the reporter said. "I mean, obviously, there was a negotiation underway. We only have one agreement."

"Correct," said the official.

The reporter tried one last time. "Was the president correct when he said that we --"

Interrupted the official: "The president is always correct."

Wit says that Bush's comments "reflect a certain viewpoint prevalent around many Republicans and some others, too," but that clearly they were also "the result of poor staff work and poor preparation for the meeting."

While this may cause some alarm considering Bush's proud indifference to intellectual inquisitiveness and his refusal to delve beyond briefing papers longer than a page or two, Bill Clinton made a similar mistake in November 1993, in a special Oval Office interview for NBC's "Meet the Press."

According to a Clinton administration source, then-President Clinton apparently misread his briefing papers that day, and he caused a dust-up when he said that "North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb," which was interpreted as an ultimatum. Clinton was supposed to have said that North Korea cannot be allowed to become a nuclear power. That is, of course, quite a different thing.

But whether or not Bush's predecessor ever made a similar mistake, one foreign policy expert who preferred to remain anonymous found Bush's misstatement troubling if only for the reason that he feared it was indicative of Bush's general lack of interest in nuance.

In the world of international diplomacy such a weakness "can cause problems with a close ally like South Korea," the expert said. "And it might cause serious problems with the country you're trying to deal with."

Asked if he had a suggestion for Bush, the expert said, "Not really. He said a really stupid thing. It seems obvious that he shouldn't say stupid things in the future."

Regardless, both Gaffney and Wit agree that the larger problem in the week of rotating messages began with Powell. "The important point here is first of all Powell should not have said [they] were going to pick up where the Clinton administration left off," Wit says.

Gaffney agrees. "My personal preference would not be to have Colin Powell going off to tell people what the policy is by his own authority," he says. But Gaffney sees a silver lining. "If Powell is going to do that, I think it's a very good thing that the president feels secure enough to say, 'This is the policy; it's not the same as General Powell said,' even if he didn't say that directly.

"The messages were mixed until the president spoke, and I hope that's the end of the mixed messages," Gaffney says. Gaffney, however, was quick to point to the positive signs he sees in Bush foreign policy. He likes the fact, for instance, that these policy debates are being carried out at a high level; it reminds him of the way his former boss, Reagan, ran things.

"I think that the idea of putting strong people in place upon whom you confer authority is great," Gaffney said. Last week reminded him of when former Secretary of State George Schultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger "were going at it tooth and tong, and then President Reagan stepped in and sorted it out. It's infinitely better that this is being sorted out at this level, and not at the deputy level or at the staff director level."

As for the questions about Bush's command of the facts, Gaffney says, "His command of the minutiae may or may not be perfect," he says, "but he's got the right instincts."

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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