Condoleezza Rice Hits Back at Critics of Her North Korea Nuclear Strategy

Signs of discord within the Bush administration

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice

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North Korea's continuing unwillingness to provide what the Bush administration considers a "complete and correct" declaration of its nuclear facilities—as required by an agreement last year—is reviving tensions within the administration over its dealings with the secretive regime in Pyongyang.

On her way to Berlin for meetings on Iran's nuclear program this week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a rare, public rebuke of a fellow administration official who had, in effect, challenged Rice's pragmatic patience toward the North Korean regime. In comments that may have been first vetted at the White House, Rice said that Jay Lefkowitz, President Bush's special envoy on North Korean human rights, "doesn't know what's going on in the six-party [nuclear] talks" and that "he certainly has no say on what American policy will be" in them.

Lefkowitz has been seen generally as reflecting the views of conservative skeptics inside and outside the administration, who remain uncomfortable with Washington's turn away from a strategy of hard-line pressure on North Korea to one of negotiating with the prospect of rewards for denuclearization. Rice and her top Asia hand, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, engineered that shift, which gained speed after North Korea conducted a nuclear test blast in October 2006.

Last week, Lefkowitz told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington that "we should consider a new approach to North Korea," which, he added, "is not serious about disarming in a timely manner." Lefkowitz advocated linking human rights and security concerns on Pyongyang in a manner that is "explicit and nonseverable, so that it cannot be discarded in any future rush to get to 'yes' in an agreement."

Rice, commenting this week, brushed aside Lefkowitz's remarks when asked if they would confuse Russia and China about the U.S. position. "I would doubt very seriously that they would recognize the name," she said.

The flash of public discord emerged as concern is growing about North Korea's resistance so far to revealing all of its nuclear assets—a key step on the way to full disarmament. "It's pretty clear that the mood of frustration has increased," says Scott Snyder, a Korea analyst with the Asia Foundation.

With skeptics of their policy shift arrayed from the vice president's office and the Pentagon to State itself, Rice and Hill have kept their private counsel on North Korea to an unusually tight circle. That practice may be feeding dissension, as things get tougher. "Hill is in the lead, but it hasn't been very open or consultative within the government," suggests Snyder, who says some officials "don't feel like they have a stake in it."

North Korea insists that it has already conveyed all the information it needs to under the six-party agreements to date. It maintains that it has not received all of the energy aid—in the form of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent—that it should have and that the Bush administration by now should have removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

U.S. officials have declined to specify what is deficient about the North Korean disclosures, but one likely area is a full accounting of past efforts to begin enriching uranium, if only in experimental quantities. The United States and other countries in the six-nation arrangement—which includes China, South Korea, Russia, and Japan—also expect the North Koreans to reveal how many pounds of plutonium, the fuel for nuclear weapons, they have reprocessed and how many warheads or bombs they have constructed.

The December 31 deadline was viewed as a key marker by many analysts, and President Bush sent an unprecedented letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il ahead of time urging him to comply with its requirements. When the deadline passed, however, U.S. officials reacted with unusual equanimity, urging more patience and arguing that there is no better alternative to the six-party approach. "There's nothing magical about December 31st," reasoned one State Department official.