The Magazine

In the Driver's Seat

Condoleezza Rice and the jettisoning of the Bush Doctrine.

Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Shortly before 10 A.M. on October 9, 2006, George W. Bush read a statement from the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House. He fixed his face to look resolute. The previous day, in spite of its many promises over many years to discontinue its nuclear program, North Korea had tested a nuclear weapon.

"The United States condemns this provocative act," Bush declared. "Once again North Korea has defied the will of the international community, and the international community will respond."

The American response came three weeks later, on October 31, when Christopher Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the government's chief negotiator on North Korea's nuclear program, met privately in Beijing with Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea's deputy foreign minister. The meeting itself was a major concession. Although Hill's boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had given him wide latitude for his negotiations she had not authorized a one-on-one meeting. The North Koreans had been pushing for bilateral negotiations with the United States since the beginning of the Bush administration. The president had repeatedly and categorically rejected any direct talks with the North Koreans.

In fact, he had reiterated this position at a press conference on October 11:

And my point to you is, in order to solve this diplomatically, the United States and our partners must have a strong diplomatic hand, and you have a better diplomatic hand with others sending the message than you do when you're alone. And so, obviously, I made the decision that the bilateral negotiations wouldn't work, and the reason I made that decision is because they didn't.

In order to facilitate discussions with the North Koreans Bush had agreed in 2003 to participate in multilateral negotiations, the so-called "six-party talks." Administration officials say the president was as clear in private White House conversations as he had been at his press conference: The United States would deal with this problem multilaterally. There would be no bilateral talks with North Korea.

Christopher Hill didn't care. He had been authorized to meet with the North Koreans on the condition that the Chinese representative was also present. But when the Chinese diplomat conveniently left for an extended period of time, Hill continued the talks. The North Koreans wanted the United States to ease the financial pressures resulting from year-old sanctions on a bank in Macau involved in shady North Korean transactions. Hill gave them his word.

"The [North Koreans were] especially concerned that we address the situation of the financial measures that has, in their view, held up the talks for about a year now," Hill said following his meetings. "We agreed that we could--that we will find a mechanism within the six-party process to address these financial measures, that we would--it would probably be some kind of a working group to deal with this, and that we would try to address it that way."

Hill did not receive--indeed, did not ask for--any assurances that North Korea would refrain from conducting further tests. He did, however, get the North Koreans to return to the six-party talks. Hill characterized the meetings as "positive" and "very constructive." He seemed to be particularly encouraged that the North Koreans had reaffirmed their commitment "to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula." But in a passing acknowledgment that the nuclear test three weeks earlier might have undermined the claim, Hill conceded that he was not yet ready to celebrate. "I have not broken out the cigars and champagne quite yet, believe me."

While the North Koreans did return to the six-party talks in December, they were not willing to cut any deals. From the outset they made clear that they were interested only in talking about easing the financial pressure that Hill had promised to address.

In January, Hill quietly set up another informal bilateral meeting with the North Koreans, this time with the blessing of his boss. Planning for the meeting, and for other aspects of North Korea policymaking, was limited to a small number of officials sympathetic to the softer line favored by Hill and Rice. Vice President Dick Cheney opposed the bilateral talks. He was joined by several key staffers on the National Security Council, at the Pentagon, and at the State Department. But "the North Korea process has been run outside the normal interagency," says a senior Bush administration official involved in the issue. Compared to other national security issues, this official says, the North Korea "policy does not get subjected to the same level of questioning in front of the president."