Bush May Reach South Korea Before New Ambassador Does

The president recently hosted some special guests on Air Force One: the family of Tony Snow, his former press secretary, who died on July 12.
The president recently hosted some special guests on Air Force One: the family of Tony Snow, his former press secretary, who died on July 12. (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)
By Dan Eggen
Monday, July 28, 2008

P resident Bush plans to make a politically risky stop in South Korea early next month, after months of street protests over an accord on U.S. beef imports and continuing controversy over six-party nuclear talks with the neighboring communist dictatorship, North Korea.

But Bush will probably travel to Seoul without a new U.S. ambassador to greet him. Appointment of D. Kathleen Stephens, the administration's nominee, has been blocked since spring by Senate conservatives, who believe human rights issues should be more prominent in the North Korea talks.

Stephens is a 30-year Foreign Service officer. She speaks Korean, served in the Peace Corps in the country, and even worked and lived there using a Korean name, Shim Eun-kyung, according to news reports.

Her troubles appear to stem largely from her latest posting as deputy to Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. envoy to the talks on North Korea. That puts Stephens on the wrong side of many conservatives, who distrust Hill and think the United States has given up too much in removing North Korea from its list of terrorist states and in easing trade restrictions against Pyongyang.

Stephens also had a one-on-one meeting that did not go well with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who placed a hold on her nomination in April. Brownback said in a floor statement that Stephens was "highly qualified" but that he "did not get satisfactory answers" from her about human rights issues. He also criticized the State Department as unwilling to "confront the North Koreans on human rights abuses."

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore said that "we share Senator Brownback's concerns about human rights abuses in North Korea, and are working with the Senate to ensure that Kathleen Stephens will be confirmed as soon as possible."

But several other conservative GOP senators support Brownback, and neither administration officials nor legislative aides see much chance of a breakthrough before Bush's trip to Asia, which also will take him to Thailand and the opening of the Summer Games in Beijing.

The impasse leaves the outgoing ambassador, Alexander Vershbow, still in place. He is viewed as taking more of a hard line on North Korea than Hill and his allies.

Family Night at the GOP Convention

The White House announced last week that Bush will speak on the first night of the GOP convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. What was not announced is that first lady Laura Bush will also take a turn at the podium before the president speaks on Sept. 1.

Laura Bush won't be introducing the president, but she will give a five- to eight-minute speech on an as-yet-undetermined topic, according to her press secretary, Sally McDonough. It's not a new role for her: She spoke at the past two conventions, seeking to humanize her husband (in 2004) by recounting how she watched him weigh "grim scenarios and ominous intelligence" around the dinner table.

Laura Bush, who also will be the guest at a luncheon in her honor that day, may be one Bush that John McCain's operation will be delighted to hear from in Minneapolis. One question is whether the president and the GOP candidate will appear together at the convention. Since March, they have appeared together in public only once, during a fleeting encounter on an airport tarmac in Arizona.

Snow Family Gets Tour of Air Force One

President Bush had some special guests on Air Force One on Friday. The widow of former press secretary Tony Snow, Jill Snow, and her three children -- Kendall, Robbie and Kristi-- accompanied the president and got a tour of the presidential plane on a trip by Bush to a GOP fundraiser in Peoria, Ill.

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