By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Next week, as President Obama embarks on his first major overseas tour, North Korean engineers will be finalizing preparations for the launch of a three-stage rocket that theoretically could reach Alaska -- a launch that Pyongyang has announced will take place as Obama visits Europe.
Whether coincidentally timed or not, North Korea's plans serve as a stark reminder that the isolated communist state with a stockpile of plutonium often tries to force its way onto the policy agenda. Pyongyang has claimed that it will seek to place an experimental communications satellite into orbit -- and it has warned that any effort to impose sanctions for the rocket test would rupture international efforts to eliminate its nuclear programs.
North Korea presents one of the biggest foreign policy challenges for the Obama administration. But though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has appointed a bevy of special envoys to deal with other specific international flashpoints, the North Korea assignment is a part-time job.
Envoy Stephen W. Bosworth, a well-regarded Korea expert, is also dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He said in an interview that he is not giving up his deanship and is "planning on spending a day or two in Washington every week or two and probably a week every four to six weeks, depending upon the pace, in Asia."
That arrangement has concerned a number of North Korea experts, who fear that a part-time position both diminishes the job and sends the message that the Obama administration has essentially decided it will manage the North Korea issue, rather than attempt to resolve it.
"Steve Bosworth is a highly capable diplomat with exactly the right experience to take this on, but there are already grumblings in Tokyo and Seoul that Washington is only interested in containing the problem," said Michael J. Green, who was the top Asia adviser in the White House during the Bush administration.
"I think the real test will not be whether Ambassador Bosworth is full time, but how the administration responds to North Korea's likely missile test in April. Japan and [South] Korea want a firm response, but China is balking this time. A tepid response at the Security Council would confirm the worst suspicions about the administration's intentions."
Mitchell B. Reiss, who once served as a part-time special envoy for the Irish peace process, said Bosworth's distance from Washington may be an advantage. "It gives you a better perspective, and you do not get nibbled to death by bureaucratic details and minutiae," he said. "Northern Ireland is very different than North Korea, and I'm very pessimistic. But I think Steve is really good. He has a reservoir of trust and goodwill that is virtually unparalleled."
Bosworth and senior State Department officials insisted that the part-time nature of his duties does not mean the administration is stepping away from the North Korea issue. They say he has been fully engaged -- for instance, attending meetings yesterday at the State Department with Japanese and South Korean envoys on how to deal with the possible rocket launch.
Bosworth replaced career diplomat Christopher R. Hill, who handled negotiations with North Korea as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Hill, who has been nominated to be ambassador to Iraq, devoted much of his attention to the North Korea issue, which members of Obama's transition team thought had detracted from his other responsibilities. So Clinton created the envoy position and will nominate a new assistant secretary for East Asian affairs, expected to be Kurt Campbell, head of the Center for a New American Security.
In addition, Clinton elevated Hill's deputy, Foreign Service officer Sung Kim, to be the principal U.S. negotiator at the now-suspended six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program, a role previously played by Hill.
"I will not be the day-to-day representative in the six-party negotiations," Bosworth said, adding that he will focus more on broader policy issues, including bilateral negotiations with North Korea. "Ideally one would like to meet with the leader," Kim Jong Il, he said. "I would like to reach higher in the foreign ministry than we have been able to."
The new envoy said key periods when he must be at the school are fairly predictable. "A lot of what I do for Fletcher, I can do on the road," he said. "I don't see a major problem. I think that it is manageable. I am fortunate in that I have extremely good people in both operations, and I will rely heavily on them."
Bosworth said it was a surprise to him when Clinton called and offered the job. By coincidence, he was visiting North Korea when rumors began circulating that he would be tapped.
"As I told the North Koreans, I had not had a single conversation with anyone in the Obama administration about anything. But as soon as I returned from Beijing, I was asked to call the State Department and ended up talking to the secretary," he said. "She was very explicit that, in her view, this could be done in coordination with the deanship."
The six-nation talks have been stalled for months over a dispute about North Korea's verification procedures. Last October, President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, thinking he had a deal on verifying North Korean nuclear claims, but Pyongyang later said there was no such agreement.
"We have got to deal with it," Bosworth said, referring to the North Korean nuclear arsenal. "It has strategic urgency. You can't simply let it cool, not only because of its implications for us but also because of its implications for countries in the area, including our two allies [Japan and South Korea]. So we've got to be seen to be dealing with this. That being said, it sure is not easy."