How Bush's Korea Gaffe Exposed Rifts Within His Administration

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"That's how the President speaks," a White House spokesman told the New York Times last week, in a somewhat lame attempt to explain why George W. Bush hadn't meant what he'd said about North Korea. Asked to explain his rejection of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung's recommendation that Washington urgently pursue President Clinton's efforts to negotiate an end to North Korea's missile program, Bush told reporters, "We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements."

That, of course, was a potentially catastrophic gaffe by a president whose problems in choosing the words that best convey his ideas can prove to be a killer liability in international diplomacy, where a leader's every word is parsed for nuance by friend and foe. For the record, the U.S. has only one agreement with North Korea — the 1994 accord to stop the production of weapons-grade nuclear fuel in exchange for assistance by Japan, South Korea and the U.S. in developing alternative energy sources (including a series of lower-grade nuclear reactors). And as U.S. officials hurried to emphasize immediately after Bush's statement, Washington has no evidence that North Korea is not complying with the terms of that agreement. Given the epic paranoia and unpredictability of the regime in Pyongyang, the last thing you want to do is accuse them of cheating — unless you're consciously setting out to take it to the next level.

So it was that the press flacks tried to explain the remark as a reference to Bush's concerns about any future deals with North Korea, even though he used the present tense. Hence the "that's how the President speaks" remark, implying that he characteristically uses the present tense to refer to the future — a formula in which "I'll do it now" presumably means the same thing as "It can wait till tomorrow."

But let's not get carried away with cheap jokes at the President's expense. After all, he's never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed, and the Bush-Kim meeting is important not because of what it may reveal about troubles ahead for the U.S. president on the diplomatic stage, but for the fault line it reveals between the hawks and doves in his administration. Bush's response to Kim raised eyebrows all over Washington and beyond because Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared to be leaning in the opposite direction the previous day. Powell had implied that the Bush administration would continue the Clinton administration's search for agreements with North Korea to curb its missile program and other dangers.

Even though the secretary of state dutifully fell in line the following day, the tenor of Bush's comments suggested that more hawkish elements in the administration may have been making their presence felt. After all, Bush could quite simply have done the "we wholeheartedly support South Korea's peace efforts and are studying ways to take it forward" routine — the diplomatic equivalent of "no comment" — instead of pointedly questioning the wisdom of negotiating with Pyongyang, which was a sharp slapdown to President Kim's "sunshine" policy of reconciliation with the North.

But having watched Powell soften Washington's line on sanctions against Iraq during his Mideast tour, the hawks weren't about to allow him to start sending flowers to their favorite bogeyman in Pyongyang. North Korea's missile program is Exhibit A in the case for building a national missile defense, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, for one, has spent much of the past five years talking up the imminent missile threat from Pyongyang as a reason to hurry the deployment of a missile shield. If North Korea's missiles could be negotiated away for a couple of hundred million dollars in aid, that might seem a more appealing option to many on Capitol Hill than spending billions to deploy a missile shield.

But it's not that crude. The hawks in the Bush administration — including Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney — are Cold War veterans who are not inclined to trust North Korea or China, which remains the behind-the-scenes sponsor of Korean rapprochement. They suspect that if Beijing managed to resolve the Korean conflict, it would remove Washington's rationale for stationing close to 40,000 troops on the Korean peninsula, between China and Japan — and that, the hawks fear, could dramatically tip the regional strategic balance in Beijing's favor.

So it's not surprising that the hawks on the Bush team are not much moved by Kim's "Sunshine Policy." Many Bush people served in Republican administrations that backed the authoritarian South Korean regimes that kept Kim Dae Jung imprisoned for his political beliefs, and they're unlikely to be comfortable with the same Kim Dae Jung as a popular South Korean president elected on promises of pursuing reunification with the Stalinist holdout to the North. Some Bush people were even whispering a comparison to Israel's deposed prime minister Ehud Barak, suggesting that Kim was pursuing peace with undue haste. Still, while the Bush mantra on the Middle East has been (as a corrective to Clinton) "We can't want peace more than the parties themselves," on the Korean peninsula they may be in danger of finding themselves wanting peace less than the very South Korean people they're ostensibly there to protect.