WASHINGTON—When President Bush took office six years ago, his hard-edged foreign policy was sometimes described by the initials "ABC," which stood for "anything but Clinton."
Nowadays, "a bit like Clinton" might be more apt.
The North Korean nuclear deal that Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice approved Tuesday blossomed from the sort of diplomatic give-and-take with an adversary that the White House had rejected until recently.
Two senior State Department officials said the deal reflected, in part, Rice's desire for a visible foreign-policy victory to offset setbacks across the Middle East, from Iraq to Iran and Lebanon. It also reflects a changed power balance within the Bush administration, with Rice at the forefront and Vice President Dick Cheney's influence diminished, at least on this issue and for now.
Rice on Tuesday called the agreement a breakthrough that came from "patient, creative and tough diplomacy."
"That's about as far away as you can get from `Either you're for us or against us,'" one of the senior officials said, referring to the president's defiant and undiplomatic rhetoric in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
This official and others requested anonymity to speak more openly.
When Bush entered the White House in 2001, he rebuffed pleas from then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung to support Kim's effort to engage North Korea and declined to continue President Clinton's policy of negotiating with Pyongyang. He appeared to question the North Korean regime's legitimacy, including it with Iraq and Iran in an "axis of evil."
In October 2002, the Bush administration alleged that North Korea had a covert program to produce uranium for nuclear weapons. The next month, the United States, Japan and South Korea stopped shipping heavy fuel oil to North Korea, dooming a 1994 accord called the Agreed Framework, which had frozen North Korea's plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon. North Korea responded by restarting the reactor and expelling international inspectors.
Critics charge that Bush wasted six crucial years—in which North Korea expanded its nuclear arsenal and tested a nuclear weapon—and now has blessed a deal that's little better than the Agreed Framework was.
The agreement announced early Tuesday at six-nation talks in Beijing commits North Korea to "shut down and seal" the Yongbyon reactor within 60 days and allow international inspectors to verify its compliance. In return, the energy-starved nation would get an initial 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.
North Korea will receive much more aid—the equivalent of 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil—if it takes further steps toward denuclearizing, including providing a complete list of its nuclear programs and disabling all nuclear facilities.
The United States pledged to begin talks on normalizing relations with North Korea, to start the process of removing it from a U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism and to resolve a dispute over alleged illicit financial activities by North Korea.
Reporters pressed Rice on Tuesday as to how the new agreement differs from the 1994 one.
She said the initial aid to North Korea was modest; that five countries—including China, Japan, Russia and South Korea—would monitor the agreement's implementation, rather than the United States alone; and that, in contrast to the Agreed Framework, North Korea wouldn't receive nuclear reactors for civilian energy production until it had dismantled its nuclear weapons complex.
"So this is a different agreement," Rice said.
"It looks to me like a carbon copy" of the Agreed Framework, John Bolton, a former Bush administration undersecretary of state and U.N. ambassador, said in a telephone interview. "I think it's a bad deal."
"This is like what Secretary (of State Colin) Powell was pursuing in 2001, until the president steered him away from it," said Bolton, who's now with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy-research center.
Nuclear-proliferation expert David Albright, who traveled to North Korea two weeks ago, said the eventual outcome would be little changed from the Agreed Framework.
"It's all going to be the same," said Albright, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, a private nuclear-arms watchdog group.
The difference is "now they have more nuclear weapons" as well as an estimated 40 to 50 kilograms of plutonium, which will be very difficult to eliminate verifiably, he said. "I think we've lost a lot of time, and now the job is harder."
The deal with North Korea already has disappointed and angered conservatives in Bush's political party, who see it as an abandonment of the president's principles and a return to Clinton-era deal-making.
Senior officials said that Bush and Rice, working through U.S. envoy Christopher Hill, were determined to get an agreement if they could. To do so, Bush overruled or softened objections from the Treasury Department and some government nuclear-proliferation specialists.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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