Talks with North Korea not planned, Bush says

Break with policy of Clinton signaled

March 08, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Putting the brakes on a Clinton administration effort to strike a historic aid-for-arms-control agreement with North Korea, President Bush indicated yesterday in meetings with the South Korean president that he plans no quick resumption of negotiations with Pyongyang.

Although the president said he is open to a dialogue with North Korea "at some point in the future," he signaled to Kim Dae Jung that for the moment, the United States is not ready to join his efforts to engage with the Stalinist state.

Bush and Kim talked over a late-morning meeting and lunch yesterday in the latest of the new president's get-acquainted sessions with friendly world leaders. U.S. officials said about half of the leaders' conversation related to North Korea, which began to emerge last year from a half century of isolation by making dramatic contacts with South Korea and China and by engaging in protracted talks with the United States.

Near the top of the South Korean president's agenda was securing Washington's blessing for his continued crusade to strengthen ties with the North. Kim won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for his efforts at warming relations with Pyongyang, and his government has been in talks to set up a visit to Seoul by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.

But Kim Dae Jung mainly met with skepticism yesterday, not approval, on the idea of engaging the North. Pyongyang's ballistic missile program is a primary justification for building a U.S. national missile defense, which is high on Bush's agenda.

Kim "was very forthright in describing his vision, and I was forthright in describing my support for his vision as well as my skepticism about whether or not we can verify an agreement in a country that doesn't enjoy the freedoms that our two countries understand," Bush told reporters after the meeting.

Bush found common ground with the longtime U.S. ally by expressing general support for the concepts of peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula.

But it was clear that Bush differs with Kim on the means to that end and that he would seek greater concessions from Pyongyang in any potential deal than the Clinton administration did.

"I am concerned about the fact that the North Koreans are shipping weapons around the world, and any agreement that would convince them not to do so would be beneficial," Bush said. "I also told (Kim) that we look forward to, at some point in the future, having a dialogue with the North Koreans, but that any negotiation would require complete verification of the terms of a potential agreement."

The notion that Bush and Kim should extract greater concessions from North Korea enjoys "a strong undercurrent" of support in Seoul and Washington, said Joel Wit, a Korea analyst at the Brookings Institution.

The South Korean leader's visit revealed what may be a developing rift between a conservative, hawkish Pentagon and a more moderate State Department on the subject of North Korea and other repressive states. Bush's comments appeared to vary significantly from statements made by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell a day earlier.

On the eve of Kim's White House visit, Powell told reporters that "we do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off. Some promising elements were left on the table, and we'll be examining those elements."

Administration officials, including Powell, spent much of yesterday trying to dispel the idea that those comments implied a resumption of negotiations in the near future.

At one point, Powell stepped out of the Oval Office, where the two heads of state were conferring, to say, "If there was some suggestion that imminent negotiations are about to begin, that is not the case."

U.S. officials denied that the administration was sending mixed messages.

"There's nothing about a timetable in what either one of them said," a State Department official said. Although Bush didn't suggest that negotiations with Pyongyang would resume shortly, "what the president says doesn't suggest that we're taking until next year," either, the official said.

Powell's apparent backpedaling fueled speculation of a growing policy divide between the secretary of state and more hawkish administration officials such as Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz.

It wasn't the first time that Powell had sounded more moderate on a foreign policy issue than others in the administration.

For example, Powell has repeatedly expressed support for Colombia's peace negotiations with Marxist rebels, a process the Pentagon views with skepticism.

Powell has spoken favorably of Europe's proposed rapid-reaction military force, though Rumsfeld has said he is "a little worried" that the force would undermine the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

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