At first glance, the outcome of the North Korean nuclear standoff might appear to be a positive one for the United States. Under the February 2007 nuclear deal negotiated by the Bush administration, North Korea will freeze its main nuclear reactor, at Yongbyon, and allow the return of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. The agreement also reawakens the slender hope that Pyongyang is on the road to nuclear disarmament.

More broadly, Bush officials have pointed to the outcome of the North Korean saga as evidence that the administration has defied—or, as some would have it, never deserved—its caricature as a bellicose, preemption-obsessed neoconservative clique. After the initial confrontation over North Korea's nuclear program, the diplomacy quickly assumed a multilateral dimension and never lost it. Japan has been a valued partner of the administration, its voice influential on North Korea policy; China was fully engaged. Outright military solutions were never seriously considered, and the process was built around negotiations designed to test North Korea's willingness to surrender its nuclear ambitions.

But a look back at the history of the Bush administration's approach to North Korea highlights a somewhat different aspect of the White House's foreign policy. The portrait that emerges is not one of a confrontational, militaristic administration; what instead becomes apparent is an image of a White House with extremely poor conceptual strategies and decision-making processes.

From the beginning, President George W. Bush, as the nation's chief strategist, has failed to articulate a coherent policy for dealing with North Korea. The administration as a whole entered office without a clear foreign policy doctrine. The president himself appears to have been attached to a number of basic principles: the importance of strength and credibility, the universal appeal of democracy, a Reaganite belief that dictatorships are morally reprehensible and cannot be trusted. But beyond those core attitudes, in the North Korean case the basic elements of strategy—ends, means, and the balance between them—were not lucidly expressed or rigorously debated at the most senior levels of the U.S. government. The result was a strategic muddle, a swirling debate not guided by any clearly calculated long-term vision. And after six years, the process has wound up almost exactly where it started—except now North Korea appears to have tripled the amount of nuclear weapons material in its possession and has become a declared nuclear power.


During the transition between administrations in late 2000 and early 2001, a team of Clinton administration national security officials traveled to the home of the secretary of state designate, Colin Powell, to brief him and the national security adviser designate, Condoleezza Rice, on North Korea policy. Powell expressed a desire to pick up on the progress that had been made during the Clinton administration—progress achieved through extensive bilateral negotiations culminating in a 1994 accord, the Agreed Framework, that froze the North's Yongbyon nuclear facility and its five-megawatt nuclear reactor. The Kim Dae Jung government in South Korea seemed equally hopeful that it could bring the new administration around to a Clinton-style policy on North Korea, an intention that reportedly emerged during a February 2001 telephone call between the two national leaders.

But from the outset, Bush's one overriding view was that Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, was a loathsome tyrant who did not deserve to be in power. The president, according to several officials who dealt directly or indirectly with him, felt very strongly about this. Beyond this instinctive reaction, however, Bush had no strategic concept for dealing with North Korea and little background in the situation on the peninsula or the details of the nuclear issue. He agreed that abandoning the centerpiece agreement of the Clinton years—the Agreed Framework—would be too provocative and risk U.S. alliances in Asia. And as a believer in redemption, he was in some ways sympathetic to arguments for giving even Kim's North Korea an opportunity to change its ways, an instinct that went against the advice of his hard-line advisers.

A stark difference of opinion was soon on display between Bush and South Korean President Kim. Kim was scheduled for a state visit on March 7, 2001, without a final U.S. Korea policy having been developed. When, on March 6, Powell spoke to the press about the visit, he predicted, as Kim had hoped, that the Bush administration would "engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off." This seems to have produced some prompt discussions at the most senior levels of government, and the next day Powell was forced to leave the presidential summit and comment to waiting reporters about the new administration "undertaking a full review" of policy and developing policies "unique to the administration." And when Bush and Kim emerged sometime later, the U.S. leader made pointed comments distancing his administration from the idea that Kim's "sunshine policy" toward the North—engaging Pyongyang in order to moderate and gain leverage over its behavior—could achieve its goals.

Ironically, a policy review process was already under way, and it had determined that the Bush administration would uphold the Agreed Framework unless North Korea violated it first. In effect, then, Powell was largely correct in describing the initial policy decisions as ones to continue Clinton-era policies. The problem was saying so publicly.

The problem also may have been an early competition to become the lead spokesperson for the president's foreign policy. As secretary of state and a far more experienced senior official than Rice, Powell naturally assumed it would be him. But as the national security official closest personally to President Bush and as the coordinator of his overall policies, Rice, some officials believe, wanted to reserve the last word on U.S. foreign policy for her own office.

This episode reinforced two emerging themes of Bush administration policymaking. One was that the president had very strong instincts about issues—and that those instincts would override the policy process, even making the whole notion of a process quite beside the point once the president was sure of what his "gut" was telling him. A second theme was that Powell was misinformed about just how poorly he and the president understood each other's worldviews and personalities—and the degree to which he, as secretary of state, would run the administration's foreign policy. Officials such as Powell, who came into office expecting a more normal interagency policy experience, had no idea yet how combative, personalized, and undisciplined the national security process of the new administration was going to become.

A formal review of North Korea policy concluded in June 2001. The basic outline of the Bush administration's national security policy process, NSPD-1, specified that regional issues would be handled by regional assistant secretaries in the State Department and functional issues would be overseen by functional senior directors on the National Security Council. Because North Korea was seen as a combination issue, Rice created a joint review process, with James Kelly from the State Department's East Asian Bureau and Robert Joseph from the NSC's nonproliferation directorate sharing responsibility. Some in the State Department saw this as a power grab by the hard-liners (who held a number of key seats in the nonproliferation offices) to ensure they would have a strong voice on North Korea. For their part, the hard-liners and the nonproliferation specialists saw a combined effort as only logical given the proliferation stakes involved. Ultimately, the nonproliferation specialists did use the combined working-group model to do everything in their power to influence, even control, the process.

Some of what followed was a fairly straightforward interagency process—background papers, deputies meetings, and an evolving dialogue leading to policy. The majority of the officials involved, however, describe an ideological debate and a fragmented interagency process that simply could not be resolved. This fight pitted the East Asian Bureau of the State Department (and some within the NSC), arguing for negotiations with the North, against a critical mass of hard-line voices, arguing against the validity of the Agreed Framework or any dialogue with the North. The formal interagency dialogue stalled, and the writing of the policy had to be centralized, with NSC officials reporting to Kelly and Joseph. They generated a proposed document that was run through the interagency process, cleared, and finalized in early June 2001.


There were different camps in the debate over North Korea policy from the beginning. The hard-line, or hawkish, group reflected some areas of strong consensus. This camp eventually came to include such officials as Undersecretary of State John Bolton, the NSC's Joseph, aides to Vice President Dick Cheney and the vice president himself, and selected senior Defense Department officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. They viewed the North Korean government as a brutal, Stalinist tyranny and believed that any economic or political engagement with Pyongyang would merely serve to prolong the life of an evil and dangerous regime. This hard-line group held to the view that because North Korea would not give up its nuclear weapons, there was almost no prospect of a negotiated settlement's achieving its goals. The only sensible option, they believed, was to put Pyongyang in a vise—to create a situation in which the North Korean leadership felt it had no choice but to surrender its nuclear weapons and agree to a painfully intrusive verification regime. Accordingly, the hard-liners felt that the Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration was a terrible mistake and ought to be undermined; some remarked openly that anything they could do to bring it down would be a step in the right direction.

What was needed, in the hard-liners' minds, was not engagement but sanctions—anything to strangle the North Korean economy and push it to the point of collapse would serve the long-term interest of peace better than steps that extended the life of Kim's murderous regime. The hard-liners, echoing the arguments of the American Enterprise Institute economist Nicholas Eberstadt, argued that by roughly 1999, North Korea had come very close to collapse and was only saved by new influxes of outside aid and investment. Some officials recall the hard-liners saying in meetings that if China could only be brought along, North Korea could be cut off from most trade and aid and would collapse in short order. Several State Department officials mentioned a memorandum Rumsfeld had reportedly sent to President Bush arguing for just such a strategy: enlist the Chinese, he allegedly proposed, in an effort to topple Kim.

An alternative school of thought within the administration would be reflected by such people as Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the NSC's Michael Green, Kelly, and (in the second term) the NSC's Victor Cha. These more moderate officials favored a strategy of tough dialogue rather than isolation and regime change. They recognized the importance of regional relationships and alliances to solving the North Korean issue—and the constraints that those relationships and alliances placed on U.S. policy. Some among this pragmatic, pro-negotiation group seem to have been content to pick up the Clinton process where it lay. Others shared the hard-line critique of the Clinton policy but believed, as the hard-liners did not, that negotiations could still be useful.

Rice fell somewhere between these camps—but closer to the pragmatists than to the hard-liners. In a 2000 Foreign Affairs article outlining Bush's prospective foreign policy, she was restrained in her criticism of the Agreed Framework. "Any U.S. policy toward the north should depend heavily on coordination with Seoul and Tokyo," she wrote. "In that context, the 1994 framework agreement that attempted to bribe North Korea into forsaking nuclear weapons cannot easily be set aside." The United States, she concluded, ought to approach North Korea "resolutely and decisively." But that did not suggest urgent efforts at regime change: "These regimes [North Korea and Iraq] are living on borrowed time, so there need be no sense of panic about them."

The landscape of the strategic debate on North Korea policy within the administration, therefore, was a complex one. When the February 2007 agreement was announced, many conservative commentators declared it a sellout, a complete reversal of administration policy toward the North since 2001. In many ways, this was true. But in another sense, the 2007 accord merely represented the victory of a strain of thought that had been very much alive—even if submerged—within the administration all along. In a second-term Bush administration anxious for a foreign policy victory, this secondary approach would be taken up, dusted off, and put into play by Rice, newly empowered as the secretary of state.


That phase of Bush's North Korea policy, however, was still six years off when, in June 2001, the administration's first policy review came to a conclusion. The policy that was eventually approved by the principals' committee emphasized two main themes—denuclearization and strong alliances—and listed four areas of interest that the United States would pursue with the North: nuclear weapons, the conventional military balance, missile technology, and human rights. "I have directed my national security team," Bush's June 13 announcement said, "to undertake serious discussions with North Korea on a broad agenda.... If North Korea responds affirmatively and takes appropriate action, we will expand our efforts to help the North Korean people, ease sanctions, and take other political steps."

The basic paradox of the administration's North Korea policy was thus right out in the open: Bush had directed his national security team to pursue negotiations with a North Korean regime that he believed to be evil and dishonest. In fact, no real policy decision had been reached. The public statement seemed to welcome talks, but most senior U.S. officials bitterly opposed them, and in fact no coherent U.S. strategy toward North Korea was being assembled at all. North Korea's response to the administration was predictable: the United States had a "hostile policy," it said to U.S. officials through low-level channels, and Pyongyang had no interest in dialogue. And then, in January 2002, the president's State of the Union address pushed the North even further away from the bargaining table with its infamous reference to an "axis of evil" that included North Korea.

Still, notwithstanding the "axis of evil" barb, in early 2002 there was a new round of discussions on North Korea policy in Washington. A great deal had happened since the first policy review—most notably, September 11 and the onset of the war on terrorism. U.S. government officials worked up a "road map" for negotiations with Pyongyang—an intensely detailed document of 20 or 30 pages spelling out step by step the specifics of what both sides should do in each of the four issue areas laid out by the first policy review.

In February 2002, President Bush traveled to South Korea. He spent more time with Kim Dae Jung and met with U.S. military officials to discuss the challenges of the regional war plan. His administration was also now embroiled in the war on terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan, and early planning for the invasion of Iraq; perhaps as a result, his comments in Seoul reflected a notable shift in tone. Speaking side by side with Kim, Bush said of their conversations, "I made it very clear to the president that I support his sunshine policy. And I told him that we, too, would be happy to have a dialogue with the North Koreans." (And yet, a year later, once the six-party talks were under way, key U.S. officials would work late nights and weekends to ensure that such a direct dialogue never occurred.)

Back in Washington, presented with the road-map document, Bush balked—not at the idea of talking to the North but simply at the interconnected complexity of the proposed approach. If the United States intended to offer the North a basic choice—change its ways or face even more isolation—why not make the alternatives as simple as possible? Bush sent his aides back and directed them to develop a "bold approach"—a large-scale offer on a few basic issues.

Of course, huge unanswered questions remained. What possible reason did Washington have to expect that Pyongyang would accept the deal? What would it do if the North declined—or took the offer as an invitation to enter into an extended negotiation? At the State Department, the reaction was quizzical. What was meant by "bold approach"? What was the goal? The response, as some in the State Department heard it, was that the principals would "know it when they saw it." Once again, the gut reactions of the president and his most senior aides would be allowed to substitute for wide-ranging staff work and strategic thought in the development of policy.

Meanwhile, a parallel notion that had been germinating within the administration from its relatively early days was gathering momentum: the idea of putting pressure on North Korea by undercutting its various illicit trading activities, such as drug smuggling, counterfeiting, and exporting arms. Interest in this plan seems to have developed in earnest in late 2001 and early 2002, pushed by a number of officials across the government but most especially by David Asher, working in the office of Kelly in the East Asian Bureau at the State Department. Asher assembled an interagency task force to study North Korea's illicit activities and develop tactics to interdict them. Some who favored negotiations approved of this "pressure points" effort, hoping that it would furnish additional leverage in talks. Reactions to the plan varied: some pro-negotiation officials, for example, hoped that by endorsing and even leading this effort, they would recapture some hard-line credibility.

These two lines of policy—negotiations and pressure—would progress within the Bush administration for the next three years. They would collide openly in September 2005, when efforts to put pressure on the North helped scuttle an emerging accord on its nuclear ambitions.


Through the spring of 2002, staffers at the NSC built a concept paper for the "bold approach," and the United States began sounding out the North Koreans about a meeting to broach the new deal. The bold approach was an effort to assemble a grand bargain that would test North Korea's willingness to do two things: denuclearize and make a strategic choice to begin moving in the direction of domestic reform and joining the world community. Kelly was set to travel to North Korea in the early summer of 2002 to deliver the offer.

That meeting, however, would never occur. Two events intervened—the first would delay the meeting, and the second would kill it. On June 29, 2002, patrol gunboats from the two Koreas engaged in a short firefight in the West Sea, and a South Korean patrol boat was sunk with some loss of life. And then every hostile instinct of the hard-line coalition in the U.S. government seemed to be confirmed. During the Clinton administration, evidence had emerged that North Korea was intent on acquiring centrifuges to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons—as distinct from the plutonium it was acquiring from the reprocessing of spent fuel at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Then, in June 2002, U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that there existed "clear evidence" that the North had "acquired material and equipment" for a centrifuge facility.

Outside the government, there has been some debate about just how significant the North Korean uranium program in fact was. Later public reports suggested that the 2002 intelligence was built on evidence that Pakistan, through the Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan's network, had sold North Korea about 20 centrifuges. The accuracy of these public reports, however, cannot be confirmed, and one is left to wonder why such a small number of machines would generate a sizable U.S. response. The alarm may have stemmed from suspicions that the North intended to clone them and make hundreds or thousands more. Even if this was the fear, however, no evidence has publicly emerged to suggest that North Korea—while it may have been busily engaged in the purchase of the components of a centrifuge capability—was anything but years away from an actual capability to produce significant quantities of highly enriched uranium.

But regardless, the intelligence assessment reawakened still unresolved debates at the core of U.S. policy and strategy toward the North. The hard-liners viewed the moment as a perfect opportunity to kill the Agreed Framework by eliminating the heavy fuel oil deliveries still being made by the framework's implementing organization, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization. The moderates advocated a more measured response, but the seeming obviousness of the cheating and the emotionalism of the principled position won out after a peremptory debate. In a famous October 2002 session with a delegation led by Kelly—which the North Koreans thought was aimed at discussing the "bold approach" agenda—Washington unveiled its evidence of the uranium program. The North Korean delegation appears to have confirmed that Kelly's accusations were accurate.

To punish the North, the administration secured a multilateral agreement to suspend fuel oil shipments, and North Korea reacted quickly—more quickly, several officials say, than the administration expected—with a series of provocative steps. In December, it reactivated the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, removed IAEA seals and cameras from its facilities, and expelled the IAEA inspectors. In January 2003, it withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The Bush administration struggled to adopt a tough stance with the North, including threatening UN Security Council sanctions. Pyongyang, meanwhile, was carrying out a threat to remove the 8,000 spent fuel rods that had been sitting in cooling ponds near the Yongbyon reactor, which the Agreed Framework had shut down. North Korea claims that these fuel rods were reprocessed by July 2003; the reactor, meanwhile, was refueled, and two years later its spent fuel was again removed. What is known in the unclassified world is this: at the time of the Agreed Framework, in 1994, the North was assessed to have one to two bombs' worth of plutonium; from the cooling ponds, it acquired spent fuel that could generate between two and six additional nuclear bombs' worth of plutonium; and from the subsequent operation of its reactor, it generated as much as two more bombs' worth of the material.


Between October 2002 and January 2003, it became apparent in Washington that new ideas were needed, and momentum began to build for a multilateral approach. After a long-drawn-out discussion within the administration involving a wide range of options and a series of meetings with key regional powers, the United States and other governments settled on an initial U.S.-Chinese-North Korean trilateral session in Beijing in April 2003, followed by the beginning of a six-party format that would include Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

In Washington, Powell reportedly found some opposition to the idea of multilateral talks. Rice supported the line of thinking, but Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and others entered the debate at this point to argue against the process and in favor of a much more confrontational policy toward the North, even extending to efforts to collapse the regime. Their arguments were rejected. With that broad decision having been made, the interagency process would crank up again—with the old tensions reappearing immediately. One official described the resulting process this way: Powell would work something out with the president, Rice would agree—and then the policy would have to be fought through the interagency process, where staffers sympathetic to the hard-line view and doing the bidding of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and others would do their best to prevent any deal from actually being struck with North Korea.

The defining example of this in the lead-up to the trilateral talks was the debate over the scope of Kelly's negotiating instructions. One day in April, an initial State Department draft of the instructions, which granted Kelly wide latitude, was circulated roughly at noon, according to one account. But Cheney's office and Joseph, of the NSC, quickly intervened, concerned that North Korea would exploit any bilateral dialogue with the United States to buy itself strategic breathing space. By 4 PM, the State Department draft had morphed into a set of more restrictive instructions issued from the NSC: Kelly would have no ability to speak directly to the North Koreans on any bilateral basis—which, according to many accounts, the Chinese had explicitly promised Pyongyang would occur. As a result, the North Korean delegation stopped participating in the talks long before they were scheduled to conclude.

After the trilateral meeting, the six-party talks opened in August 2003. U.S. negotiators were squeezed on both sides—on one by the North Koreans and on the other by the hard-line coalition within the administration. Yet State Department officials found that as the six-party process moved forward, Bush seemed to gain confidence in it. The other parties were actively participating, in many cases putting pressure on North Korea, and the multilateralism of the effort was having an effect.

In June 2004, the momentum toward direct dialogue led to the preparation of the most elaborate formal offer to North Korea yet assembled by the administration. Some U.S. Asian allies, especially Japan, reportedly believed that the time had come to put North Korea on the spot with a strong proposal. Accounts described the offer as proposing, in part, that China, Japan, and South Korea furnish energy aid to the North in exchange for the North's freezing its nuclear sites, fully disclosing its nuclear activities, and opening itself up to IAEA inspections—all within three months.

The North Korean response was pleasant but noncommittal. In fact, the timing of the proposal should have made this hardly surprising: by laying its best offer on the table less than five months before a presidential election, the Bush administration was all but inviting the North Koreans to stall for time and wait to see if the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, won and offered them better terms. In an interesting sideline at the meeting, North Korean negotiators told the U.S. delegation that forces within their country were pressing for a nuclear test. If matters were not resolved, they warned, hard-line elements might have their way. At the time, it seems, Washington dismissed this threat as a negotiating ploy.


In Bush's second term, the style and substance of the approach to North Korea changed markedly. This was the product of a number of gradual shifts: changes in the political context, changes in personnel, and an acceptance of the reality on the ground. Many of those involved in the policy insist on its fundamental consistency—its multilateralism, its emphasis on diplomacy, its desire to test North Korean intentions. That claim is accurate, as far as it goes, and one has to admire the commitment of those second-term officials, such as the negotiator Christopher Hill and Cha, who diligently pursued negotiations and at a minimum brought U.S. policy back to the starting point from which it had veered so dangerously. Still, judged by such standards as the degree of engagement of North Korea, the force and frequency of U.S. negotiating offers, and the willingness to tolerate Pyongyang's misbehavior, there can be no doubt of a significant shift in tone in the second term—and an eventual collision with many of the core principles the administration had stated from the beginning.

Within the administration, Rice replaced Powell as secretary of state, and by the end of 2006, Rumsfeld had left the Defense Department, replaced by Robert Gates. Cheney's office remained influential, but less so, in part because it was in turmoil due to the high-profile trial of his former chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Meanwhile, Bolton's nomination as UN ambassador had to be abandoned. The domino effect of senior staff changes resulted in the weakening of the once-dominant hard-line coalition on North Korea.

Rice quickly made it clear that as secretary of state she saw her role differently from as national security adviser: now, when she wanted to take charge of an issue, she would do so. North Korea became just such an issue, and she has been described as a sort of "super North Korea desk officer" because of her focus and involvement from 2005 on. Rice went looking for an energetic, effective diplomat to replace the well-respected Kelly as lead negotiator, and she found Hill. His experience as a Balkan negotiator was appealing, as was his reputation as a tireless and determined diplomat.

With the Rice-Hill team in place, there was a powerful force advocating a new round of negotiations. Movement toward a negotiated settlement may have been helped along by political considerations: many reports suggest that there was a growing feeling in the administration that a foreign policy success story in North Korea would be of major value, especially as the situation in Iraq worsened between 2004 and 2006.

These powerful drivers, however, still ran firmly against the strong and oft-expressed conviction of many key foreign policy officials, including the president himself, that North Korea was simply not a regime that could, or should, be dealt with. An agreement would contradict powerful rhetoric that had been in play since the administration's first days in power—and would have to overcome the continuing, although far less intense, bureaucratic games of a hard-line faction that remained unpersuaded of the need for a deal.

Still, at least from a negotiating standpoint, the energetic Rice-Hill efforts began paying dividends quickly, during the summer and fall of 2005. An announcement came on September 19: the United States had offered a nonaggression pledge and, in principle, to normalize relations with the North, and it had reopened the possibility of delivering a nuclear reactor of "light water" design to the North at some point. North Korea, in turn, had made an allegedly novel promise to fully denuclearize and open itself to inspections. The agreement represented more of an "agreement to agree": a minefield lay ahead of the September 2005 announcement in the best of circumstances—and the best of circumstances were not to emerge.

The first shot across the bow of the new deal came from Pyongyang. Within days, the North was backtracking, claiming it had been promised a light-water reactor immediately and would only begin implementing the deal when construction began. The second shot came from Washington. The Treasury Department had made an announcement of its own: based on evidence that North Korean counterfeit U.S. currency was being laundered at a Macao-based bank, it had issued a draft notice designating an obscure financial institution called Banco Delta Asia as a "money laundering concern." This caused a run on the bank, which led Chinese officials to freeze its assets, including some $24 million of North Korean funds. Pyongyang called the financial action an attack on its sovereignty and stalked away from the negotiating table. The second track of U.S. policy—the pressure-points strategy—had veered sideways and crashed into the nonproliferation strategy. More than a year would pass before the talks would begin again.

With negotiations having collapsed, North Korea apparently made the calculation that the time had come to cross some very prominent red lines. In July 2006, it conducted a test of a long-range missile, and on October 9, it crossed the biggest threshold of all, testing an underground nuclear device. Global condemnation was swift, and the United States immediately urged a package of UN sanctions. Yet the U.S. rhetoric was muted. Bush reaffirmed his commitment to diplomacy; in one press conference, he used some version of the word "diplomacy" 17 times. This seems to have reflected the dominant reaction to the underground test within the administration: concern, mainly, that an overreaction would play into the hands of a North Korea determined to provoke the United States and, at the same time, a refusal to recognize the North's nuclear status and an attempt to get the North back into denuclearization talks as soon as possible.

The UN Security Council did pass two resolutions, including Resolution 1718, which levied controls on any North Korean trade having to do with weapons of mass destruction or luxury goods and allowed for the possible inspection of goods going to and from the North. But this hardly seemed a punishment fit for the crime, and reporters were soon sending back accounts of bustling trade at North Korea's border with China.

The six-party talks had gotten under way again in December 2006, with a fruitless round that ended in failure. Cha, of the NSC, by chance ran into the North Korean delegation at the Beijing airport; the North Koreans, anxious to break something loose from the stalled talks, suggested a bilateral round of U.S.-North Korean negotiations somewhere besides Beijing. Cha could make no commitments and promised only to raise the idea back in Washington, which he did—reportedly in the form of a memo arguing in favor of such bilateral negotiations. According to published reports, his argument relied on the principle of testing North Korea's intentions. Cha told a reporter that Bush "wanted to see if the North Koreans were serious about implementing the September 2005 joint statement." Cha's memo prompted a series of intense discussions within the administration. On the one hand, bilateral talks would constitute a complete reversal: as recently as October 12, Bush had again castigated the Clinton policy of direct bilateral negotiations and insisted resolutely that his administration would never pursue them. On the other hand, in informal venues within the six-party talks, the administration had already been holding what amounted to bilateral talks for some time.

Cha's case for testing North Korea's intentions reportedly carried the argument, and Bush approved the most formal set of bilateral dialogues yet—and in a richly symbolic location, Berlin, where the Clinton administration had conducted some of its own negotiations with North Korea. Hill met North Korean officials there in mid-January 2007 and produced the outlines of a possible deal. Rice reportedly spoke by telephone with Bush and her successor as national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, about the potential agreement; both of them endorsed it. The Berlin meetings generated only the framework of a deal; nothing was finalized until February 2007, and the six-party process then got back under way. Having conducted a bilateral dialogue, however, proved important: other parties could now tell the North Koreans that patience with Pyongyang's stalling was at an end, in part because the North had gotten the bilateral dialogue it had long demanded.

Back in Washington, meanwhile, the hard-liners, accustomed to being the ones privy to key inside information and able to influence the most important decisions at the last minute, found themselves on the outside looking in. They complained that the resulting deal had not been subjected to a comprehensive interagency vetting. "There was no process here," one disgruntled opponent complained to The New York Times. "Nothing." Advocates of a negotiated solution were the ones feeding the last-minute papers to the key decision-makers. The world had, in many ways, turned upside down inside the Bush administration's policymaking process.


With the victory of the Rice-Hill approach, Bush's foreign policy on North Korea came to reflect the triumph of pragmatism over principle. But the Bush administration's Korea policy has long reflected something much more than that: an essential lack of strategy and (at least in the first term) a decision-making process that was alternately fragmented, bitterly ideological, and impelled by top-down, instinct-driven mandates.

Participants in the process, especially in the second term, will point to what they see as a strategy that is now in effect: the six-party talks. We have employed multilateral diplomacy to offer North Korea a strategic choice, they claim. That is a strategy, and it has worked.

But negotiations are a tactic and a process, not a strategy. They have not resolved the immense contradictions in the administration's attitude toward North Korea—for if what the president says about its moral character is true, it is not a regime with which the United States can reliably negotiate. Pursuing talks leaves open huge questions about such issues as what the ultimate ends of U.S. policy are—what degree of certainty, for example, about North Korean disarmament will be enough? Most fundamental, beyond the nuclear issue, the administration has never articulated a coherent strategy toward North Korea as a whole, and as long as that question remains unanswered, U.S. strategy toward the nuclear issue will remain hostage to unresolved issues as basic as whether or not Washington is willing to live with the North Korean regime.

This strategic muddle was in part a consequence of key policymakers' thinking in principled rather than strategic terms—a major feature of the Bush administration. Many officials made policy based on moralistic grounds rather than strategic ones, arguing that the United States "must do X or Y" (because, for example, North Korea is an "evil" regime) instead of thinking in terms of a strategy to achieve specific, carefully designed ends.

It was also a consequence of the personalities that drove the strategy process. It is often said about foreign policy that there is only one real policymaker—the president. The North Korean case reinforces this well-known lesson: whenever President Bush got involved, his preferences, instincts, and reactions overwhelmed the process; the system, in the end, responds decisively to one individual. This can create opportunities but also enormous risks.

To fill his cabinet- and subcabinet-level posts, moreover, Bush gathered together a combination of realists, neoconservatives, classical conservatives, radicals, pragmatists, and others—all of which added up to an incoherent advisory personality, and bureaucratic warfare often broke out. The result was an often fractured, disjointed process—policy incoherence caused by a collision of contradictory approaches from ideologically opposed officials whose combat was often unregulated. In order to get something done in this environment, the typical pattern in the administration was to centralize the decision-making process and cut people out of the loop. In the by now very well-publicized Iraqi case, it was the State Department that was cut out; in the North Korean case in the second term, hard-liners at the NSC and elsewhere were the ones brushed aside.

A related lesson—hardly unique to this case—is that at least in the first term, the office of the national security adviser did not adequately do its job. There was no effective strategy-making or critical analysis, no merging of views into a coherent whole, no resolving of debates. One way of conceiving the resulting problem was as a mismatch of process (and national security adviser) and president. In the first term, Rice seemingly decided to be a personal policy adviser to the president rather than the manager of a coherent policymaking process. That model can work, but only with a president who is a master strategist. When a president is a moralist with scant interest in the nuances of international strategy, he needs a process that will make up for the natural shortcomings of such a style—an inattention to second-step thinking, an allergy to detail, a tendency not to see the point of having dissenters, a habit of allowing certainty to override considerations of risk. It is a national security adviser's responsibility to fill a president's strategic gaps, not to exacerbate them.

Finally, and perhaps somewhat ironically for such a tough-talking administration, the North Korean case demonstrates that the administration—when confronted with repeated North Korean sallying across numerous red lines—abandoned its principles in favor of pragmatism when those principles proved inconvenient. Tough talk was not backed up; commitments were not fulfilled. The administration said that it would not tolerate a North Korean nuclear program—and then tolerated a substantial growth of that program. It called the regime evil—and then volunteered aid. It disparaged bilateral talks only to eventually engage in them. It refused to negotiate over the financial issues surrounding the Banco Delta Asia—and then returned the money. Those hard-liners, such as Bolton and Joseph, who expressed public exasperation at such reversals were right about one thing: the ultimate nuclear deal was a very public repudiation of many principles that the administration had enunciated on North Korea between 2001 and 2006.

In the end, an administration that had abandoned engagement for moralism ended up deserting its moralistic principles after all. Embracing full-scale engagement would have been anathema, of course, and so the administration turned instead to a meager denuclearization offer unlikely to break North Korea fully free of its entrenched position as a declared nuclear power. Meanwhile, Pyongyang appears to have acquired anywhere from three to eight more nuclear weapons than it had when Bush came into office—and it has exploded one of them right in the face of the world community. And still absent from the stage is any sense of true long-range strategic thinking or any real hope that the long-running saga of the North Korean nuclear issue can be resolved in any fundamental way. Without additional U.S. actions, the coming months and years will likely hold a series of half-step-forward, quarter-step-back negotiations, in which Pyongyang will use the February 2007 agreement as the basis for endless wrangling, partial payoffs—and the continued possession of its hard-won nuclear arsenal. From the perspective of today, life under the Clinton administration's much-maligned Agreed Framework looks very good indeed.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Michael J. Mazarr is Professor of National Security Strategy at the U.S. National War College. The views expressed here are his own.
  • More By Michael J. Mazarr