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Administration Spurns N. Korea's Ban on Envoy

Bolton's epithets stung Pyongyang, but he was speaking for the White House, an official says.

August 05, 2003|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The White House on Monday dismissed North Korea's insistence that a senior State Department official whom Pyongyang called "rude human scum" be barred from upcoming nuclear talks, in an exchange that underscored the obstacles facing the halting diplomatic effort.

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan defended Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton -- also called a "bloodsucker" by North Korea -- and said President Bush would decide who speaks for the United States at the expected six-country meeting on Pyongyang's nuclear program.

In calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Il a "tyrannical rogue" and life in the Stalinist state a "hellish nightmare," Bolton was "speaking for the administration," McClellan told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where the president is taking a monthlong vacation. "His remarks last week reiterated things we have said in the past."

Bolton, the department's arms control chief and one of the administration's most outspoken officials, criticized Kim at length in a speech he delivered last week in South Korea.

Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency fired back Saturday, declaring that in light of Bolton's "political vulgarity and psychopathological condition ... we have decided not to consider him as an official of the U.S. administration any longer, nor to deal with him.... Such human scum and bloodsucker is not entitled to take part in the talks."

State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker said Bolton was part of the Bush administration, "and his remarks are coordinated as such."

He declined to respond to the North Korean attack, saying, "We're not going to dignify North Korean comments about our undersecretary of State."

World leaders last week welcomed news that the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia would sit down this month or next to discuss North Korea's efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Yet the latest exchange of incendiary rhetoric suggested that the United States and North Korea remained on a collision course, analysts said.

L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington, said the North Koreans' words demonstrate "how dislocated they are from international reality."

While Pyongyang has hoped to gain leverage by using threatening language and publicizing its desire to build a bomb, the effect has been to frighten and alienate the world community, he said.

At the same time, Flake said, U.S. officials almost certainly understand that when they attack Kim in personal terms, other North Korean officials must "first and foremost lash out, to prove their fealty to the leader."

In its dispatch Saturday, the North Korean news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying, "We may exercise self-restraint as regards other matters but will never allow anyone to slander the top leader of [North Korea], whoever he is and wherever he is on Earth."

The conflicting goals of the two nations have made Flake and other analysts pessimistic about the prospects of the six-party talks. U.S. officials, Flake said, appear determined to give no ground until the North Koreans dismantle their nuclear infrastructure, while the North Koreans seem committed to forcing the United States to recognize their status as a nuclear power and grant concessions.

Bolton's comments, the unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman told the government news agency, "cast a doubt as to whether the U.S. truly wants to negotiate with [North Korea] or not."

Eric Heginbotham, an Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said North Korea's heaping scorn on Bolton makes it more difficult for the White House to not send him to the talks.

Bolton was not a U.S. representative during the last U.S.-North Korean talks, held in April, and he probably wasn't the administration's first choice this time, Heginbotham said.

Yet "the principle the administration seems to be emphasizing is that 'we're not going to let anyone else call the shots,' " he said. "So the North Korean statements seem to complicate matters quite a bit."

The exchange also suggests that major differences remain within the administration on how to deal with North Korea, Heginbotham said.

Even as Bolton was blasting Pyongyang, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was stressing hopes for a diplomatic solution and trying to assuage North Korean fears of an invasion.

"Our policy, the president's policy, is to work diplomatically with our partners and the North Koreans to find a diplomatic, political solution," Powell said in an interview with reporters Sunday.

Analysts noted that Bolton's tough language did reflect Bush's rhetoric, if not the more conciliatory approach of some State Department officials.

Bush has reportedly called Kim a "pygmy" in private conversation and said he "loathed" the North Korean leader.

The president also included North Korea in the "axis of evil" he cited in his 2002 State of the Union address, along with Iraq and Iran.

Bolton has been blunt in his criticism of nations the administration views as rogue. In the last year, he has spoken out forcefully against Syria, accusing it of developing chemical and biological weapons.

In May 2002, he stirred an uproar by accusing Cuba of developing a biological weapons program, a charge that has been disputed by others in the administration.

Last June, Powell told CNN that "Cuba is not a threat."

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