Korea's Place in the Axis

METHOD OR MADNESS?

On January 29, President George W. Bush announced what seemed a new U.S. policy toward the Korean Peninsula -- and threw observers worldwide into confusion. In his state of the union address that night, Bush outlined the steps to come in his administration's "war on terrorism." Among them was a tough new approach to what he termed an "axis of evil": North Korea, Iraq, and Iran.

The president's speech seemed, at first, to bring new clarity to the U.S. security agenda, signaling the high priority the administration placed on countering links between terrorists and rogue nations that seek chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons to threaten the United States and the world. The only problem was that, at least with respect to North Korea, this new posture seemed to contradict the strategy suggested by the Bush administration seven months earlier. In June 2001, a comprehensive policy review authorized by the White House had recommended that Washington hold unconditional talks with Pyongyang on a wide range of issues, including the posture of North Korea's conventional military, its ballistic missile program, and its suspected nuclear weapons program.

This recommendation, in turn, had been at odds with a previous set of Bush remarks on the subject. In March 2001, he had scorned the "sunshine," or engagement, policy of South Korea's president, Kim Dae Jung, and expressed skepticism about North Korea's supposedly peaceful intentions. And these remarks, finally, had broken with still another proclamation of U.S. policy -- this one by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had announced earlier the same month that the Bush administration intended to pick up negotiations with North Korea where the Clinton administration had left off.

In light of these zigzags, it is hardly surprising that Bush's state of the union address caused a lot of head-scratching. And indeed, several months afterward, for many the question remains: Does the administration know what it is doing on North Korea? Does it actually have any policy at all, or is the topic a football grabbed by whichever internal faction has the president's ear at a particular moment?

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