President Bush yesterday suggested growing irritation with China and Russia's response to the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, telling reporters he had spoken to the presidents of both countries in recent days and reminded them they have a "joint responsibility" for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
The administration has come under increasing pressure from lawmakers, especially Democrats, because of its handling of the situation, with many demanding that the administration begin discussions with the North Koreans to ease tensions. Administration officials have responded that they do not want to reward North Korea for its behavior, and they instead are seeking to fashion a diplomatic strategy with key nations in the region.
But China and Russia have balked at bringing the issue to the U.N. Security Council, which administration officials have viewed as critical to isolating the North Korean regime and providing an international platform for possible negotiations with Pyongyang. Bush's comments yesterday appeared designed to put public pressure on both countries.
Bush, who spoke yesterday morning with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, said he "reminded him that we have a joint responsibility to uphold the goal that we talked about in Crawford [in October], that goal being a nuclear-weapons-free peninsula; that we have responsibilities, joint responsibilities; that Russia has a responsibility." Bush added that "all options are on the table."
"We will continue to work diplomatically to make it very clear to [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il that should he expect any kind of aid and help for his people, that he must comply with the world's demand that he not develop a nuclear weapon," Bush said.
Administration officials have privately expressed increasing concern about China's actions during the crisis, and have said Beijing has failed to send a clear message to North Korea. China potentially has enormous leverage, because its food and energy aid essentially props up the government. But the Chinese have repeatedly told U.S. officials that the Bush administration needs to resolve the problem by direct talks with the government in Pyongyang.
"They're carrying Pyongyang's water instead of ours," one senior U.S. official complained. "The Chinese could cut them off, and in six months North Korea would be in dire circumstances."
The International Atomic Energy Agency last month gave North Korea one more chance to comply with its nuclear obligations, but since then Pyongyang has quit an international nonproliferation treaty and restarted a shuttered facility that could produce plutonium. Within months, North Korea could produce enough material for four to six nuclear weapons.
The IAEA's board of governors on Wednesday will discuss whether to refer the standoff to the Security Council. "That is our goal," said another senior administration official. "But it is not a slam dunk," in part because China, Russia and South Korea have sent conflicting signals about permitting that step.
"China could do more," the official added. "They could send a clear message to North Korea. They could do more at the IAEA. And they could do more publicly."
U.S. officials have privately told the Chinese that their response to North Korea is starting to threaten the U.S.-Sino relationship. In the past week, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage have offered unusually direct criticism of the Chinese handling of North Korea. Powell, in fact, spent one hour with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan earlier this week at the United Nations, and the bulk of the conversation dealt with North Korea, not Iraq, Powell said.
Armitage, testifying before Congress on Tuesday, said the Chinese had a "schizophrenic approach" to North Korea. "They are very unhappy with the possibility of nuclear developments on the peninsula," he said. "They are also, they tell us, quite aware of North Korean paranoia, and they treat things very gingerly."
On Thursday, Powell told lawmakers: "North Korea is a more direct threat to South Korea and to China and to Russia than anyone else," he said. "Now, those nations are also encouraging us: Quick. Quick. Talk to the North Koreans."
Powell noted that Jiang has said Chinese policy is not to accept the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. "If that is the Chinese position -- and it is -- then they have something of a responsibility and obligation to play a role in finding a way forward and not simply saying the United States has to solve this by talking directly," Powell said.
One official said China appears incapable of thinking or acting strategically, since it has no equivalent of the National Security Council and an extremely cumbersome bureaucracy. Second, he said, the Chinese want to keep North Korea propped up to prevent a refugee crisis or reunification, but at the same time do not want to harm its relationship with the United States. The result, he said, is inaction.