WASHINGTON – The Bush administration's tactics for disarming North Korea (search) are not working, two key U.S. supporters of talks with Pyongyang told Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) this week.
But the administration is downplaying a rift with its partners on the sensitive issue — which has been a subject of repeated sparring by President Bush and Democratic opponent John Kerry.
The State Department says the United States enjoys a "remarkable similarity of views" with China (search) and South Korea (search) on North Korea, despite differences they aired. The United States has joined with those two countries, plus Japan (search) and Russia (search), to press North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for economic benefits and security guarantees.
The process is at a standstill because Pyongyang refused to show up for talks scheduled for September. Bush administration officials believe the North is intentionally delaying talks until after the U.S. presidential elections.
With Powell standing at his side in Seoul on Tuesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon said the United States and fellow negotiators "must come up with a more creative and realistic proposal" to lure North Korea back to the talks.
A day earlier in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing met with Powell and then called for a "more flexible and practical" U.S. attitude toward North Korea.
Powell indicated frustration over the remarks because he believes the United States showed flexibility in June, the last time six-nation talks were held. The United States set forth a detailed proposal on the pace and type of benefits North Korea would receive if it offered a credible commitment to disarm. Powell suggested the United States will not offer a new proposal when North Korea has yet to respond to the last one.
American visitors to North Korea have been impressed with how attuned Pyongyang officials are to U.S. campaign developments, including polling numbers. Many assume the North prefers Kerry to Bush, who labeled the North a member of an international "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran.
Kerry contends that "America is more threatened than ever before" as a result of Bush's approach to the North Korea problem. He says the communist country has six to eight nuclear weapons, enabling it to "sell nuclear weapons to terrorists and still hold an arsenal in reserve." Powell cites U.S. intelligence estimates that say Pyongyang has only one or two.
While Kerry says direct talks with the North should supplement the six-party format, Bush holds that Kerry's plan would trigger the collapse of the broad-based approach.
Powell says North Korea strongly favors bilateral discussions. "They want some benefits and rewards for their incorrect behavior. They want free aid," said Powell. He added that the one-on-one approach, tried in 1994, ended with an agreement that North Korea violated not long thereafter.
In denying suggestions of a U.S. rift with China and South Korea over tactics, the State Department said Wednesday, "The thrust of the trip from all of us was how to get them back to the table, how to press forward as soon as possible."
But it was highly unusual for China and South Korea to air differences with Washington so close to the U.S. election, noted Nicholas Eberstadt, a Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute (search).
"It begs the question as to why Powell would have subjected himself to this if he had foreseen the embarrassment that was awaiting him," Eberstadt said.
Chinese criticism of the United States may be aimed at calming North Korea, making it easier for Pyongyang to return to the talks, said Don Oberdorfer of the School of Advanced International Studies. He said a resumption of discussions is a matter of time.
Lately, the United States has softened its rhetoric toward Pyongyang, presumably to woo North Korea back to the six-party discussions.
As an example, U.S. officials no longer talk about the need for "complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament" by North Korea, considering that formulation to be too inflammatory.