By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007
J. Thomas Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, sent President Bush an unusual private cable this week warning that the pending nuclear deal with North Korea could harm relations with Japan. He also complained that the U.S. Embassy had been left in the dark while the deal -- which could include North Korea's removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism -- was negotiated by top State Department officials.
Schieffer's cable was described by sources who had read it. Both Schieffer and the White House acknowledged the existence of the cable, which was numbered Tokyo 004947, but they declined to discuss it in detail.
"Communications between myself and the President are privileged," Schieffer said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday night. "I never discuss them with others."
Schieffer's cable appears to be another sign of the unease in some parts of the administration over the North Korea agreement, which sets out a step-by-step process of disabling and accounting for North Korean nuclear programs, in exchange for incentives and economic assistance from the United States and North Korea's neighbors. Pyongyang has long sought removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, but Japan has insisted that North Korea first provide details on the abductions of Japanese citizens by the reclusive nation during the 1970s and '80s.
Ambassadors generally do not send diplomatic cables directly to the president, but Schieffer has unusual status as a longtime friend of Bush's. He was an investor in the partnership that -- along with Bush -- purchased the Texas Rangers baseball team in 1989. He is also the brother of CBS broadcaster Bob Schieffer.
J. Thomas Schieffer was ambassador to Australia in Bush's first term and then was given the high-profile post of Tokyo envoy in the second term.
The North Korea deal has come under attack from conservatives, especially Republicans on Capitol Hill, but Schieffer is a Democrat who served three terms in the Texas House of Representatives. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made the six-nation accord one of her top priorities, having persuaded the president to put the agreement on a fast track earlier this year.
In his cable, sources said, Schieffer stressed that he does not believe that Japanese interests should dictate U.S. policy toward North Korea. But he warned the president that rumors were flying in Tokyo that the talks on removing North Korea from the terror list were progressing rapidly, which he suggested could potentially harm U.S. relations with its closest ally in the Pacific. He noted that Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill had assured him that North Korea needed to first show substantial progress on the abduction issue before any action was taken, but Schieffer said he was seeking direction and clarification in part because the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo appeared cut out of the process.
"Ambassador Schieffer was clarifying what he sees on the ground and that the abduction issue was something we need to continue to emphasize in the six-party talks," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
The new Japanese prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, will visit Washington in the coming weeks, Johndroe added. During that meeting, "President Bush will reiterate our commitment to help Japanese efforts to resolve the abduction issue with North Korea," he said.