WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday sharply rebuked a fellow member of the Bush administration who criticized international negotiations aimed at persuading North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program.
Rice said that Jay Lefkowitz, President Bush's special envoy on North Korean human rights, "doesn't know what's going on in the six-party talks, and he certainly has no say on what American policy will be in the six-party talks."
Lefkowitz said Thursday that the North is not serious about disarming and probably still will have its nuclear weapons when the next U.S. president takes over in January 2009, despite four years of nuclear disarmament talks by the United States, the Koreas, Japan, China and Russia.
The Bush administration has been working to distance itself from the rare public criticism of administration policy by a government official. The comments come at a time when the nuclear talks have reached an impasse, and the North has missed a promised deadline and increased its hostile rhetoric.
Rice, speaking with reporters on her way to Germany for talks on Iran's nuclear program, said that she knows where Bush stands on North Korean policy, "and I know where I stand, and those are the people who speak for American policy."
Asked if she thought the Chinese and Russians would be confused by Lefkowitz's comments, Rice said she doubted they would even recognize the special envoy's name.
North Korea has responded strongly in the past to critical U.S. comments, and Lefkowitz has been a frequent and harsh critic of the North's treatment of its citizens.
The North's Minju Joson newspaper said in a commentary Tuesday that American "hard-line conservative forces" are trying to "stifle" North Korea.
The Bush administration's early tough stance on North Korea has given way to a push for a nuclear deal. Officials have been reluctant to criticize the North for fear of unraveling the delicate nuclear negotiations.
The North missed an end-of-2007 deadline to declare all its nuclear programs. But the chief U.S. envoy to the nuclear talks, Christopher Hill, has said he hopes the North's declaration eventually will serve as a road map for dismantling its atomic programs by the end of 2008.
North Korea accused the United States on Tuesday of failing to meet its commitments and blamed Washington for the slow progress in the nuclear disarmament deal.
The North's Minju Joson said the United States had failed to fulfill its promise to remove North Korea from U.S. terror and trade blacklists by the end of 2007 under the six-nation agreement.
State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos, responding to the North's claims, said the United States "has met and is meeting its commitments."
"We urge North Korea to deliver a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs," he told reporters. He said removing the North from the U.S. terrorism list, a main North Korean goal, is linked to North Korean progress on meeting its commitments to disarm.