President George W. Bush's personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, raising the possibility of normalized relations if he fully discloses his nuclear programs by year's end, is a turnabout for a president who has labeled the communist regime part of an "axis of evil."
"I want to emphasize that the declaration must be complete and accurate if we are to continue our progress," Bush wrote, according to an excerpt of the Dec. 1 letter obtained by The Associated Press.
The Bush administration sought to play down the diplomatic significance of the letter, the president's first to the reclusive North Korean leader. Yet it reflected how U.S. policy toward the nation has shifted from the days when Bush shunned the dictator.
The letter might sate Kim's desire to be recognized by the United States as a player on the world stage. However, White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush meant it as a "reminder" to North Korea that it has pledged to provide by the end of this month a complete and accurate disclosure of its nuclear programs.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the contents of the letter, said Bush indicated to Kim that if North Korea does what it has agreed to do, and the Korean peninsula is denuclearized, then that will ultimately lead to normalization.
The United States is looking for a complete declaration of North Korea's nuclear facilities, materials and programs and also insists that it address any role that the North Koreans have played in spreading nuclear technology to others.
Bush sent similar letters on Dec. 1 to leaders of Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, the other nations involved in the six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear program, to reiterate his desire to resolve the standoff. He also spoke about the issue on the telephone Thursday with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Watched by U.S. experts, North Korea started disabling its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon, which was shut down in July, and two other facilities last month.
Christopher Hill, the U.S. nuclear envoy who delivered Bush's letter to North Korea's foreign minister during a visit to Pyongyang this week, says efforts to disarm the reactor by year's end are going as scheduled, but differences remain over the nuclear programs that the Kim's government would declare.
Neither the White House nor the State Department would release the letters or disclose their content.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press that the letter to North Korea refers to a need to resolve three main sticking points: the exact amount of weapons-grade nuclear material the North produced, the number of warheads it built and whether and how North Korea may have passed nuclear material or knowledge to others.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe details of the delicate diplomacy, said the letter underscored Bush's desire to resolve the nuclear dispute and made plain that North Korea cannot skirt requirements to fully explain the extent, use and possible spread of nuclear material and technology.
Derek Mitchell, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the letter is evidence that U.S. policy toward North Korea has changed "at least 150 degrees" from early in the Bush administration.
"Kim Jong Il is someone whom Bush famously loathed. He's quoted as saying he loathes Kim Jong Il and called him a pygmy, and the attitude was that you don't talk to evil, you end it," Mitchell said. "That Bush would, at this point, directly contact — send a personal letter — to Kim Jong Il is a remarkable turnaround from that."
Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned against placing too much significance on the direct correspondence.
"I think a presidential letter is a fairly restrained version of direct communication and appropriate to the stage of the negotiations," he said. "I think it's better for this sort of letter to be written than for the president to jump on a plane to Pyongyang."
The Bush letter is a diplomatic exclamation point because North Korea has been hearing the same message from Hill. The correspondence also serves a domestic political purpose, a signal to conservative critics of the North Korea deal that the United States will not roll back its requirements or accept less than a full declaration of the North's nuclear program.
The question of proliferation has taken on greater significance, and become a political hurdle for the Bush administration, since Israel's air strike on a suspected Syrian nuclear site Sept. 6. Intelligence reports suggested Syria was cooperating in some fashion with North Korea in building the site.
The news that North Korea may have been working with others as recently as this year, after it had agreed to give up its weapons, reinvigorated U.S. domestic opposition to what some conservatives in Congress see as an overly generous deal with an unreliable country.
Under the deal, North Korea was promised 1 million tons (910,000 metric tons) of fuel oil or the equivalent, plus political concessions such as its removal from a U.S. list of terrorism-supporting nations, in return for disabling its nuclear program and making other moves.
U.S. officials have acknowledged the Dec. 31 deadline is likely to slip. Better to have the complete document in hand a couple of weeks late than to have a half-baked version by the Dec. 31 deadline.
"It is going to take a monumental effort to get all of this done by the end of the year," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to reporters as she flew to Brussels, Belgium, on Thursday for NATO meetings. "And I am not too concerned about whether it's December 31st or not. They seem to be on track. Everybody believes the cooperation is very good."
South Korean Foreign Minister Song Min-soon sounded a gloomier note, saying, "There has not been progress on the declaration yet."
A Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed disappointment that North Korea was likely to miss the year-end deadline, but said it is unlikely to affect the overall agreement.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the six countries were consulting on whether to hold another round of meetings before the end of the year.