What's in a phrase? Everything, in the craft of diplomacy.
This is the story of three little words -- "no hostile intent" -- and the fierce tussle within the Bush administration over them as officials tried to develop a policy to confront North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
To a non-diplomat, the phrase might seem typical of the awkward and diffuse verbiage frequently uttered by men in pinstriped suits. But to the North Korean government, hearing those words from the United States looms large as the diplomatic equivalent of the Holy Grail.
Yet President Bush has never uttered them. Neither has Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Former secretary of state Colin L. Powell did, especially in the final months of his tenure -- and he frequently suggested Bush had said them, too.
But we're getting ahead of the story.
Government officials around the world pay close attention to the words spoken by U.S. officials, especially the president. But few countries devote as much time or effort as North Korea. For half a century, the reclusive government in Pyongyang has viewed the United States as its primary enemy -- the only country with the military might to possibly crush it.
Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability in San Francisco, said studying and analyzing the comments of U.S. officials is a significant career track in the Pyongyang bureaucracy.
"They watch like hovering hawks," said Hayes, who has made seven trips to North Korea. "They monitor American rhetoric, statements and the policy process much more closely than we monitor them."
In 2000, the final year of the Clinton administration, a senior North Korean official visited Washington and met with President Bill Clinton and other top officials. At the end of his visit, on Oct. 12, the governments issued a joint communique that declared that "as a crucial first step, the two sides stated that neither government would have hostile intent toward the other."
Wendy Sherman, a former top State Department official who was the chief U.S. negotiator of the communique text, said her counterpart made it clear that including the phrase about "hostile intent" was critical to North Korea's making concessions on its missile program.
What does "no hostile intent" mean? As with a lot of diplomatic shorthand, a precise definition can be elusive, in part because the phrase's meaning depends largely on the ear of the beholder. For North Korean leaders, diplomats say, the phrase goes beyond a pledge not to invade, conveying an implicit message of respect between two peer nations.
"Ultimately, it is about regime survival," Sherman said. As part of negotiations, the Clinton administration placed the statement in a section that stressed the need for peace and security in the region, so allies would not think a declaration of "no hostile intent" would mean an abandonment of U.S. protection.
Fast-forward to the Bush administration. The talks with North Korea started by Clinton were put on hold. In his State of the Union address in 2002, Bush identified North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" that included Iran and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
In October 2002, the United States accused North Korea of having a clandestine nuclear program and, with its allies, cut off fuel deliveries promised under an agreement reached with Clinton. In December, North Korea kicked out international inspectors and restarted a shuttered nuclear facility.