Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Three little words matter to N. Korea

What's in a phrase? Everything, in the craft of diplomacy.

This is the story of three little words -- "no hostile intent" -- and the fierce tussle within the Bush administration over them as officials tried to develop a policy to confront North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

To a non-diplomat, the phrase might seem typical of the awkward and diffuse verbiage frequently uttered by men in pinstriped suits. But to the North Korean government, hearing those words from the U.S. looms large as the diplomatic equivalent of the Holy Grail.

Yet President Bush has never uttered them. Neither has Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell did, especially in the final months of his tenure -- and he frequently suggested Bush had said them, too.

But we're getting ahead of the story.

Government officials around the world pay close attention to the words spoken by U.S. officials, especially the president. But few countries devote as much time or effort as North Korea. For half a century, the reclusive government in Pyongyang has viewed the United States as its primary enemy -- the only country with the military might to possibly crush it.

Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in San Francisco, said studying and analyzing the comments of U.S. officials is a significant career track in the Pyongyang bureaucracy.

"They watch like hovering hawks," said Hayes, who has made seven trips to North Korea. "They monitor American rhetoric, statements and the policy process much more closely than we monitor them."

In 2000, the final year of the Clinton administration, a senior North Korean official visited Washington and met with President Bill Clinton and other top officials. At the end of his visit, on Oct. 12, the governments issued a joint communique that declared that "as a crucial first step, the two sides stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward the other."

Implicit message of respect
Wendy Sherman, a former top State Department official who was the chief U.S. negotiator of the communique text, said her counterpart made it clear that including the phrase about "hostile intent" was critical to North Korea's making concessions on its missile program.

What does "no hostile intent" mean? As with a lot of diplomatic shorthand, a precise definition can be elusive, in part because the phrase's meaning depends largely on the ear of the beholder. For North Korean leaders, diplomats say, the phrase goes beyond a pledge not to invade, conveying an implicit message of respect between two peer nations.

"Ultimately, it is about regime survival," Sherman said. As part of negotiations, the Clinton administration placed the statement in a section that stressed the need for peace and security in the region, so allies would not think a declaration of "no hostile intent" would mean an abandonment of U.S. protection.

Fast-forward to the Bush administration. The talks with North Korea started by Clinton were put on hold. In his State of the Union address in 2002, Bush identified North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" that included Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

In October 2002, the United States accused North Korea of having a clandestine nuclear program and, with its allies, cut off fuel deliveries promised under an agreement reached with Clinton. In December, North Korea kicked out international inspectors and restarted a shuttered nuclear facility.

To stem the sense of crisis -- coming as the United States readied an invasion of Iraq -- on Dec. 29, 2002, Powell hit five Sunday-morning talk shows. In every appearance, he resurrected the "no hostile intent" phrase that had appeared in the Clinton communique -- and attributed it to Bush.

"This year, the president made a clear statement that he had no hostile intent toward North Korea," Powell said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "And he said that in South Korea earlier this year." On Fox News, Powell quoted Bush as saying, "I have no hostile intent toward the North."

'No intention of invading'
Actually, Bush had said no such thing. Speaking to reporters in Seoul one month after the "axis of evil" speech, Bush again said that North Korea's government was evil and that he would not "change my opinion on the man, on [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il, until he frees his people."

But Bush added: "We have no intention of invading North Korea. South Korea has no intention of attacking North Korea, nor does America."

Experts say this language does not impress the North Koreans, especially after they were labeled part of an "axis of evil."

Powell's language on "no hostile intent" was picked up by the State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, when he briefed the news media in the weeks after Powell's television appearance. But the language disturbed hard-liners in the administration, who believed that North Korea had clearly demonstrated a hostile policy toward the United States -- and that the phrase limited the administration's options in using economic and other weapons to pressure Pyongyang. They began to press for its elimination from the administration's talking points.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld raised the issue with Rice, who was then national security adviser, an official familiar with the conversation said. Rice agreed that the language should be dropped, and that only Bush's earlier comment about not attacking and invading be used.

Language shifts of this sort are rarely formally announced. Boucher did an impressive job of dancing around the question when sharp-eared reporters at the State Department asked about it. On Feb. 19, 2003, Boucher cut off a reporter just as he was about to ask whether "no hostile intent" was still the policy. "Yes, we have no plans to attack or invade North Korea. I can say that without a problem," Boucher said.

Powell also dropped the phrase. But when United States began holding six-nation negotiating sessions with North Korea in 2003 and 2004, the language began to creep back into his statements, especially after the Bush administration hinted that it might join in a multilateral security guarantee for North Korea. Powell again frequently suggested that Bush had "repeatedly" used the words "no hostile intent."

But an extensive search of presidential statements finds that the closest Bush ever got to North Korea's magic phrase was during a speech on Jan. 7, 2003, although he made it clear he was not talking about the North Korean regime: "We have no aggressive intent, no argument with the North Korean people."

'Different words'
A White House official said last week that there was "no hidden meaning" behind Bush's not using the phrase -- just that the president wanted to be more specific in dealing with North Korea's fear of a military attack. Powell and Bush "are two different men using different words," he said.

The issue flared again as Rice prepared for her confirmation hearings, when the State Department's Asia bureau proposed that she use the phrase "no hostile intent." But she simply repeated the president's "no attack or invade" language.

In this year's State of the Union speech, Bush appeared to take pains not to denounce North Korea and noted that he was working with allies to solve the crisis through diplomacy. But Sherman said it might have made a significant difference if Bush had finally uttered the phrase "no hostile intent." "It could have had real meaning to North Korea and moved the negotiations forward," she said.

Instead, a week later, North Korea announced that it had nuclear weapons and was pulling out of the negotiations, citing what it called the administration's "hostile policy."
I can think of three words for Kimmy and those ain’t them!