The Bush administration yesterday struggled to defend the president’s inclusion of North Korea in an “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq while insisting that U.S. policy toward Pyongyang had not changed and Washington was open to resuming dialogue with the reclusive state.
South Korea, meanwhile, expressed dismay with Mr. Bush’s remarks in his State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, arguing that the North didn’t support terrorism and that the threat it posed was different from the harm Iran and Iraq could inflict on the United States.
The State Department, which, according to administration sources, had little input in the president’s speech, said Mr. Bush’s strong language was in fact a signal that Pyongyang should sit at the negotiating table as soon as possible.
“The fact that we identify the nonproliferation concerns as among the most serious dangers in the world these days should be a message to North Korea that it is imperative for them to respond to our offer and to sit down and discuss these and the other issues of concern, including conventional forces on the peninsula and terrorism and humanitarian concerns as well,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.
The administration’s North Korea policy created confusion during Mr. Bush’s first months in office. Last March, a day after Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had assured South Korean President Kim Dae-jung that Washington would continue the Clinton administration’s engagement with the North, Mr. Bush told Mr. Kim he was skeptical about future dealings with Pyongyang.
After a policy review, however, the Bush administration said in late May it supported Mr. Kim’s “sunshine policy” of reconciliation with the North. Since then, the State Department repeatedly has expressed readiness to resume dialogue “at any time, any place, without preconditions,” but no significant contacts have materialized.
Yesterday, faced with a barrage of skeptical questions about lumping North Korea together with Iran and Iraq, Mr. Boucher declined to specify the similarities among those three countries, which the Clinton administration called “rogue states.”
The word “Axis” was “appropriate” for Mr. Bush to use “because there are relationships between these countries,” he said. “I’m not sure if there is anything in particular I can cite on the public record at this point without checking, but there are, indeed, relationships there.”
Although North Korea largely has observed a 1994 framework agreement with the United States to halt development of its nuclear program, Washington has accused the Stalinist state of pushing the development of long-range missiles, and exploring biological and chemical capabilities.
In his address, Mr. Bush, who plans to visit South Korea next month as part of an East Asian tour, said North Korea “is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens.”
The North’s state media yesterday rejected the president’s accusations.
“The U.S. loudmouthed ‘threat’ from the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is sophism intended to justify its military presence in South Korea and persistently pursue the policy of aggression against the DPRK,” said a newspaper commentary carried by North Korea’s official news agency.
In Seoul, Mr. Kim said it was “important to maintain a peaceful atmosphere in North-South relations.” South Korean diplomats in Washington, however, urged the Bush administration to “resume dialogue” with the North, rather than make “unhelpful” statements.
North Korea analysts and former U.S. officials, while recognizing the threat Pyongyang posed to peace and stability in East Asia, criticized Mr. Bush’s approach of putting it on the same scale with Iran and Iraq.
“You have to be careful when the president of the United States says to a country, ‘You are part of an evil Axis,’” said Wendy Sherman, the Clinton administration’s top official for North Korea. “It might be a useful rhetorical device in a speech, but it’s not useful to make comparisons with Iran and Iraq.”
Some critics speculated yesterday that the president was using the North Korean threat to justify his missile defense plans.
Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution, dismissed such speculation.
“I’m skeptical that the Bush administration is deliberately trying to create, exacerbate or highlight a North Korean missile threat just to deal with the domestic politics of missile defense,” he said. “Bush’s instincts on North Korea are wrong and dangerous, but I don’t think they are cynical.”
The White House yesterday insisted that Mr. Bush’s use of “Axis of evil” was “more rhetorical than historical” and shouldn’t be compared to the World War II alliance among Germany, Japan and Italy, known as the Axis.
Both Iran and Iraq rejected Mr. Bush’s charges in his first State of the Union address.
Iranian President Mohammed Khatami condemned the “bellicose, insulting and anti-Iranian” comments of the president.
“Unfortunately, the United States has been abusive in every direction since the September 11 attacks. This U.S. policy towards Iran is doomed to fail.”
Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan called Mr. Bush’s remarks “stupid and indecent” and vowed that Baghdad would not accept a return of U.N. arms inspectors. “It is not right for a president who is supposed to be leader of the greatest country to accuse this or that state of being a source of evil.”
While some of Washington’s European allies offered support for Mr. Bush’s comments, others found them not fully appropriate.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was “entirely right” for Mr. Bush to voice concern about other countries.
“We have always said the fight against terrorism does not stop at Afghanistan and that there would always be another phase to this,” a spokesman for Mr. Blair said. “Clearly that can encompass a comprehensive range of activities. It doesn’t just involve military action.”
But French Foreign Ministry spokesman Francois Rivasseau voiced reservations about pointing fingers at specific states.
“France still doesn’t consider countries as terrorist states,” he said. “What counts for us is the degree of cooperation of all states in the fight against terrorism.”