The Bush administration's handling of the crisis with North Korea reflects not only battles within the government but also, in many ways, a conflict between President Bush's heart and his head over how to deal with the isolated state, administration officials and analysts said.
In his heart, the president professes to have a deep revulsion for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, who lives what is said to be a lavish lifestyle while millions of his citizens starve. In his head, the president knows that the confrontation over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs cannot be solved without the cooperation of regional powers, some sort of dialogue with North Korea and an eventual agreement that once again caps, if not dismantles, the country's nuclear ambitions, officials said.
The president is also focused on a looming war in Iraq, and wants to keep North Korea at bay.
These conflicting impulses have been on display nearly every day in recent weeks, even as the administration, in an effort to ease the standoff, appears to be lurching toward a policy of engagement and incentives not dissimilar from that pursued by President Bill Clinton. Bush frequently mentions the plight of the North Korean people, as he did Tuesday when he appeared to set a new course by offering to consider agriculture and energy aid if North Korea dismantles its nuclear weapons programs.
"We care deeply about the suffering of the North Korean people," he said.
In his heart, too, Bush -- and many senior members of his administration -- are wary of any initiative associated with Clinton. So they are reluctant to embrace the 1994 agreement that Clinton negotiated with the North Koreans that froze a plutonium facility that North Korea reopened last month. Under the deal, known as the Agreed Framework, the United States helped provide fuel oil and build two light-water reactors in exchange for shutting down the plutonium facility.
The North Koreans appear to be using the same playbook of escalating demands they perfected in 1993 and 1994 that led to the Agreed Framework, which is another reason Bush has resisted negotiations that would require compromise. Officially, the United States has offered only to talk about how North Korea can meet its international weapons obligations, not to enter into a round of negotiations.
"The Clinton administration was prepared to engage with a morally reprehensible government in the interests of protecting U.S. security," said Robert Einhorn, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who handled nonproliferation issues in the Clinton administration and part of the Bush administration. "Bush believes it is essentially morally wrong to engage with a regime that cannot be trusted."
This has left the administration in the strange position of dangling potential carrots while denying that those carrots are related to the current impasse. Although the administration frequently says regional powers -- South Korea, Japan, China and Russia -- are in sync with this approach, foreign diplomats say other nations have found the administration's stance frustrating.
Administration officials privately complain that regional players, with the possible exception of Japan, have been too wobbly in dealing with the crisis. China has been a roadblock in bringing the matter to the U.N. Security Council, officials said.
The administration, said Brookings Institution analyst Ivo Daalder, also has not offered any "sticks," because it has ruled out the option of a military strike, which Clinton briefly considered. "The later it gets, the more you in fact will have to put on the table in order to get a deal," said Daalder, who was on Clinton's National Security Council staff. "The administration has excluded carrots and excluded sticks. Under that circumstance, there is no deal."
Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who favors direct talks, complained yesterday that "this flip-flopping and this change in position from one day to the next sends a very conflicting and confusing message not only to the North Koreans, but to the international community."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer responded that the administration has been consistent in dealing with the North Korean threat. "It's a very constant policy where clearly it is North Korea who has brought this on the world, and the position of the United States is shared by our neighbors in the region, and it's unfortunate that somebody would make a statement that would imply that China, Japan, South Korea and [Russia] have flip-flopped," he said.
Insiders describe almost constant tension within the government over how to manage the situation -- tensions that have existed from the start.
For the first 18 months of the administration, advocates of isolating North Korea clashed with those pushing for engagement. The engagement camp, led by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, appeared to have finally won the argument just when officials in July received conclusive evidence of a clandestine North Korean program to enrich uranium. Despite the intelligence, Powell went ahead with a brief meeting with the North Korean foreign minister at a conference in Brunei on July 31.
Powell, in an interview at the State Department last week, said he decided to meet with the North Korean foreign minister because "one, I wanted to go ahead, and two, at some point we were going to have to tell them that we knew." He only alluded to North Korea's secret project in the 15-minute conversation. "I told him we wanted to engage, but he had to understand we had to move forward," and both sides had to put everything on the table for discussion, Powell said.
Yet the discovery of the uranium project emboldened those seeking to isolate North Korea, because they said it confirmed North Korea could not be trusted. Key officials pressed for a U.S. delegation headed to North Korea after Powell's meeting to simply inform North Korea that the Agreed Framework was dead. The debate delayed any trip until October. When confronted with the evidence, Pyongyang unexpectedly confirmed it, U.S. officials say, prompting the crisis.
Robert L. Gallucci, dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and the chief negotiator of the Agreed Framework, believes that, given North Korea's collapsing economy, the Bush administration is in a potentially strong position and "has a good chance of achieving some or all of its objectives." But, he added, "you don't know what is possible with North Korea unless you talk to them."