- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

The president speaks
There was a collective scratching of heads in the State Department press room Monday afternoon after President Bush declared, in an offhand way, that "we will have dialogue" with North Korea.
The remark, in televised comments to reporters at the end of a Cabinet meeting, followed weeks of the Bush administration insisting that there would be no talks with North Korea until it gave up its nuclear ambitions and agreed to honor its international agreements.
But it was said so casually, and followed by a reminder that the United States had held talks with North Korea in the past, that no one was sure whether the president was signaling a new policy or simply saying that relations would improve in some vague, distant future.
U.S. officials were in the middle of two days of talks with Japan and South Korea on how to deal with the latest provocation from Pyongyang, so the comment seemed to belong somewhere in that story, but where?
The New York Times, in the end, ignored it completely, focusing instead on the president's repeated insistence during his news conference that the United States had no intention of invading North Korea. The Washington Post mentioned the remark but buried it deep in its story with no suggestion that it reflected a change of policy. The Associated Press went so far as to call a White House spokesman, who advised them not to read too much into the remark, and so they did. Reuters news agency used the quote but played it down.
But for our State Department reporter Nicholas Kralev, Mr. Bush's comment was a eureka moment.
A few days earlier, Mr. Kralev had learned during social conversations with administration officials that the United States was indeed getting ready to change its policy.
Officials had concluded that the impasse with North Korea could not be resolved without some kind of talks, Mr. Kralev had been told, but no announcement was likely for several weeks because of a desire not to let the Korea issue interfere with the buildup toward a war with Iraq.
It was a juicy bit of news but one that had been given to him off the record, meaning it could not be used without breaking faith with his sources.
Some tense moments
Mr. Kralev had been puzzling all day over how he could make use of this bit of information. When he heard Mr. Bush speak, he saw his opening.
He immediately called back to the administration officials he had spoken to earlier. Now that the president had spoken, one of the sources reaffirmed to him that the policy was about to change and gave him two more quotes to that effect "on background," meaning the quotes could be used so long as the speaker was not identified by name.
Armed with that confirmation, Mr. Kralev wrote a very strong story leading on Mr. Bush's comment and noting that it reflected earlier private remarks by administration officials.
A headline writer on our copy desk where they rarely shy away from a good story got into the spirit of it and provided a bold headline that dominated Tuesday's front page: "Bush promises talks with North Korea."
A subhead proclaimed, "'We'll have dialogue' over nukes."
Mr. Kralev faced a few tense moments when he arrived at work Tuesday. He was confident that what he had written was accurate, but it can be lonely to be the only reporter with a story of that sort as long as no one else picks up on it. And most of the other reporters at the State Department were of the opinion that we had overplayed what Mr. Bush had said.
Luckily, we didn't have to wait long for confirmation.
That came later in the afternoon when the State Department released a detailed statement summarizing the conclusions of the two days of talks with the South Koreans and the Japanese.
Buried somewhere in the middle of the second page of the statement was what we needed: a line saying, "The U.S. delegation explained that the United States is willing to talk to North Korea about how it will meet its obligations to the international community."
At that point, everyone in the newsroom recognized it as a significant shift in policy. The issue dominated the daily State Department news briefing and made front-page news in all the top newspapers Wednesday morning.
David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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