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Bush Defends Diplomatic Record with North Korea


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

As UN diplomats work on ways to punish North Korea for its claimed nuclear test, there's been a lot of finger pointing in Washington about how the situation got this far. President Bush defended his record at a news conference today, saying bilateral talks of North Korea during the Clinton administration, failed to curb the country's nuclear ambition. Former Clinton administration officials are taking issue at that, saying engagement is the only way to influence the secretive communist nation.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: When President Bush came to office, he said his administration found that the North Koreans were cheating on the agreement they made with the Clinton administration and that's why, he explained today, he decided to change course.

President GEORGE W BUSH: I appreciate the efforts of previous administrations -it just didn't work. And therefore, I thought it was important to change how we approach the problems so that we could solve that diplomatically.

KELEMEN: He said he felt he had a stronger diplomatic hand with China, South Korea and others joining in the so-called six party talks.

BUSH: The best way to convince Kim Jong-Il to change his mind on a nuclear weapons program is to have others send the same message.

KELEMEN: But the history of US policy on North Korea is not quite that simple, critics say. Wendy Sherman, a top state department official during the Clinton administration and a special adviser on North Korea, defended previous negotiating efforts. In a conference call with reporters today, she said the record speaks for itself.

Ms. WENDY SHERMAN (Special advisor on North Korea): During the Clinton administration, there was no new production of plutonium. No new nuclear weapons and no nuclear test. And during the Bush administration, there has been a 400% increase, at least, in the production of plutonium used to make nuclear weapons. A 400% increase, probably, in the number of nuclear weapons and we now have had a nuclear test.

KELEMEN: Critics say part of the problem is the still unresolved debate within the Bush administration between hardliners pushing for regime change and those who seek a negotiated solution. Joseph Cirincione of the Center for American Progress says that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice quietly changed the US approach last year, allowing it to have a state department envoy to meet his North Korean counterpart privately on the sidelines of six party talks.

While that led to an important breakthrough, others in the administration were taking steps to punish North Korea for alleged money laundering and counterfeiting. Cirincione said that undercut the nuclear talks, now Pyongyang is refusing to return.

Mr. JOSEPH CIRINCIONE (Center for American Progress): When we threatened the North Koreans, they accelerate their efforts. That should be the lesson of the last 20 years.

KELEMEN: Now he says the US is left with very few diplomatic options. UN ambassadors are working on a Security Council resolution that could lead to international inspections of North Korean cargo and sanctions on luxury goods. Cirincione says that won't be enough.

Mr. CIRINCIONE: Sanctions can play a role. Military interdiction can play a role. But there is no combination of sanctions or military interdiction that's gonna coerce North Korea into giving up this program. No country has ever been coerced into giving up nuclear weapons or program. But lots of countries have been convinced to do so.

KELEMEN: And that gets back to the idea of bilateral talks. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was among those today, urging the US to open a dialogue with Pyongyang and not just through the six party framework.

Mr. KOFI ANNAN (Secretary General, United Nations): I have always argued that we should talk to parties whose behavior we want to change, whose behavior we want to influence. And from that point of view, I believe that we should - US and North Korea should talk.

KELEMEN: President Bush wasn't buying it.

President BUSH: It didn't work in the past, is my point. The strategy did not work.

KELEMEN: He didn't single any change in his strategy. He made clear that the US has no plans to attack North Korea, but is working instead through the United Nations on a sanctions resolution that he hopes will pressure North Korea to change its behavior.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.