Bush Korea Policy: The Hawks Have It

  • Share
  • Read Later

President Bush greets South Korean President Kim Dae-jung in the Oval Office

South Korea's President Kim Dae Jung may have picked a bad week to come to Washington. Having suffered some highly visible setbacks on Iraq policy, the more hawkish elements of the Bush administration weren't about to start sending flowers to their favorite global bogeyman, North Korea's President Kim Jong Il. And so, despite Secretary of State Colin Powell's suggestion the previous day that the new administration may consider pursuing a dialogue with North Korea begun by the Clinton administration, President Bush Wednesday bluntly rejected his South Korean visitor's suggestion that the U.S. quickly resume talks with his reclusive communist neighbor.

Kim's message to Bush was that the window of opportunity for reaching a deal to end North Korea's missile program in exchange for technical and economic aid was fast closing, but the U.S. president said there'd be no talks with Pyongyang anytime soon. The reason? "We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements," explained Bush.

Bush's blunt comments came as a surprise after Powell's statements earlier in the week, and the new president's inexperience on the diplomatic stage was evident from the fact that White House aides immediately rushed to play cleanup. After all, the North Koreans are notoriously skittish and paranoid — not the sort of folks you want to accuse of cheating if you want to avoid unpredictable confrontations. So senior administration officials rushed to put out the message that there was, in fact, no evidence that North Korea is violating the terms of its only agreement with Washington — to freeze plutonium production at a suspected nuclear weapons facility — and that the President's comments referred only to his fears regarding any future agreements.

How to deal with North Korea's missiles, of course, is the subject of one of the fundamental planks of the Bush administration's foreign policy — national missile defense. Pyongyang's presumed missile capability has been Exhibit A in making the case for a shield designed to protect the U.S. from warheads fired by "rogue" states, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has spent much of the past five years talking up the North Korean threat. Rumsfeld and other administration hawks have never been comfortable with the Clinton policy of offering North Korea economic aid in exchange for curbing its roguish ways, seeing this as simply encouraging Pyongyang to keep on blackmailing the West. And despite Powell's statements earlier in the week, the Bush team had made no secret on the campaign trail of its skepticism over bribing North Korea to play ball. Bush aides had even dissuaded President Clinton from making a historic trip to North Korea last December.

But the South Koreans, whose protection provides the rationale for the massive deployment of U.S. forces on the Korean peninsula, see things differently. President Kim was awarded last year's Nobel Peace Prize for his "Sunshine Policy," which has opened an unprecedented rapprochement between the two states created by the Korean War. And the South Korean Kim came to Washington to seek Washington's blessing for — and involvement in — his continued efforts to reduce tensions along the last Cold War frontier. But President Bush and his advisers were plainly not going to sign their Korea policy over to a South Korean dove whose haste to pursue peace has some U.S. officials inclined to compare him to Israel's former prime minister Ehud Barak.

Still, Kim's visit provided further evidence of the foreign policy fault lines within the new administration, with the hawks fighting back against what they perceive as a dovish streak in the secretary of state, while a novice President quickly learns that the plain-speakin' style of the campaign trail can be disastrous in international affairs.