President Bush's mention of North Korea as one of three countries attempting to acquire weapons of mass destruction came as a surprise to many observers. Analysts say Mr. Bush's remarks about North Korea, in his State of the Union address, could create new difficulties in relations between Washington and Pyongyang, and in dialogue between North and South Korea.
The questions began almost immediately after President Bush's State of the Union speech last Tuesday, when he accused North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, of seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The president said the three countries form what he called an "axis of evil."
In subsequent speeches, Mr. Bush has returned to this theme although without mentioning North Korea, Iran or Iraq, by name. He had this to say in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday. "We have also sent another message, that if you're one of these nations that develops weapons of mass destruction and you're likely to team up with a terrorist group or you're now sponsoring terror, or you don't hold the values we hold dear true to your heart, then you too are on our watch list," he said. "People say what does that mean? It means they better get their house in order, it means they better respect the rule of law, it means they better not try to terrorize America and our friends and allies or the justice of this nation will be served on them as well."
U.S. officials have sought to clarify what Mr. Bush meant in his State of the Union remarks. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States remains committed to discussions with North Korea on a range of issues from nuclear weapons and terrorism to conventional force reduction. "We've offered to discuss these issues, these very serious issues in a serious manner at any time, any place without preconditions," he said.
David Brown is an expert on the Korean peninsula at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He said Mr. Bush's description of North Korea was accurate, but he personally questions the wisdom of the remarks. "I can see personally only downsides from his doing so," he said. "Downsides from South Korea, which he is going to visit in about three weeks and down sides in terms of dealing with the problems which he has identified with North Korea, so quite frankly I am mystified."
North Korea responded angrily to President Bush's remarks saying they were designed to pressure Pyongyang and justify the continued stationing of U.S. troops in the south. Pyongyang has also criticized the war to eliminate Osama bin-Laden's al-Qaida terror network in Afghanistan.
In South Korea, which has been pursuing the goal of reunification with the North, analysts were quick to suggest that Mr. Bush did not mean North Korea itself would be a target of U.S. military action.
Samuel Kim is a professor of political science at Columbia University in New York. Describing Mr. Bush's remarks as a rhetorical offensive, he said they will not help with North-South dialogue or getting Pyongyang back to substantive talks on key issues. "It really doesn't solve any problem," he said. "It may have sounded very nice for a domestic audience but in terms of getting diplomatic negotiations between the two countries back on track it is certainly not going to be very helpful."
President Bush and South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung are scheduled to meet February 20 in Seoul, with suspected North Korean weapons of mass destruction a key item on the agenda. U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Thomas Hubbard, said Mr. Bush's remarks did not mean Washington rejected dialogue with Pyongyang.
Nevertheless, David Brown, formerly in charge of Korean affairs at the State Department, said the stakes for the Bush-Kim talks have now been raised. "They're going to have to be quite frank talks explaining our very different approaches to dealing with North Korea," he said. "While at the same time in public he (Mr. Bush) is going to be trying to maintain the other aspect or principle of his foreign policy, which is to cooperate with our allies. We are in fact not cooperating with South Korea in terms of how to deal with North Korea and he is going to have to try and figure out how to try and square that circle when he is there."
One South Korean newspaper (the Times) said Seoul and Washington are considering incentives to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. However, the newspaper, quoting a senior Seoul government official, said Washington and Seoul would likely still maintain separate approaches in dealing with Pyongyang.