W on North Korea



We are finally wading through Condeleeza Rice’s memoir, which provides her counterpoint to those we have reviewed by Rumsfeld, Bolton and Cheney (here and here). She is refreshingly blunt on the internal wrangling in the administration; indeed, she claims North Korea policy was the most politically contentious foreign issue the administration faced.

Before turning to Rice’s tome in a future post, however, it is worth reviewing the position of her boss. Bush’s 2010 memoir, Decision Points, spends little time on North Korea. He says nothing about the internal politics of the issue beyond the well-known story of reeling in Colin Powell early in the administration.

As Bob Woodward first reported in Bush at War, W’s reaction to Kim Jong Il was gut-level ("...`I loathe Kim Jong Il!' Bush shouted, waving his finger in the air. `I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people...' ") Bush claims in his memoir that Kang Chol-hwan’s Aquariums of Pyongyang was one of the most influential books he read during his presidency and that it stirred up “deep disgust for the tyrant who had destroyed so many lives.”

What to do about it is another issue. He recounts a March 2001 meeting where he decided the basic mode of dealing with North Korea would change: “From then on, North Korea would have to change its behavior before we made concessions.” (It was following this meeting that Powell misspoke on the administration's intention to continue Clinton-era negotiations; as Powell put it, he had leaned "a little too forward on his skis").

Later in the book, Bush draws an analogy between Kim Jong Il and a spoiled child throwing food on the floor. “The United States is through picking up [Kim Jong Il’s] food.” Following the intelligence that North Korea was pursuing the HEU option--which received a lot of attention in the Bolton memoir--he made the decision that the US would not negotiate bilaterally with North Korea. Instead “we would rally China, South Korea, Russia and Japan to present a united front against the regime."

As Bush acknowledges, China was the stumbling block to this strategy (“the Chinese wanted stability; we wanted freedom.”) The one interesting tidbit in Decision Points is how Bush dealt with Jiang Zemin on the issue in late 2002 and early 2003. Jiang visited the Crawford ranch in October 2002—just as the crisis was breaking—and the Chinese leader apparently blew off Bush’s appeals to bring pressure to bear on Pyongyang. In January 2003, however, President Bush tried rolling out the “nuclear Japan” card, noting that if North Korea went nuclear the US would “not be able to stop Japan…from developing its own nuclear weapons.”

When that argument was dismissed as less than credible, Bush told Jiang that the US would consider a military strike on North Korea if diplomacy failed; that threat might have been more credible given contemporaneous developments in Iraq. Bush immediately goes on to note that Beijing hosted the Six Party Talks less than six months later, suggesting that his threat and Chinese cooperation were related as cause and effect.

Not surprisingly, Bush’s defense of the Six Party Talks is terse and tepid. He believes UNSC 1718 and Banco Delta Asia sanctions worked to bring North Korea back to the bargaining table in 2007 but talks were only an interim solution:

“In the short run, I believe the Six Party Talks represented the best chance to maintain leverage on Kim Jong-il and rid the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons. In the long run, I am convinced the only path to meaningful changes is for the North Korean people to free.”

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