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Ex-Envoy Faults U.S. on N. Korea

Jack Pritchard, Bush's senior expert on the communist nation until he quit, says face-to-face talks are vital to heading off nuclear escalation.

September 10, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The State Department's former senior expert on North Korea said Tuesday that the Bush administration's refusal to engage directly with the country made it almost impossible to stop Pyongyang from going ahead with its plans to build, test and deploy nuclear weapons.

Six- nation talks are a good step, but not enough, said Jack Pritchard, who was the department's special envoy for negotiations with North Korea until he resigned last month. The United States should immediately initiate direct talks with the communist nation, he said.

"The idea that in a short period of time you can resolve this problem" in talks where diplomats from six countries sit down with 24 interpreters and try to make a deal without private consultations is "ludicrous," Pritchard said. "It cannot happen."

Pritchard's resignation came as current and former U.S. officials described bitter fighting in the administration over how to deal with the problems posed by North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Some in the administration have argued that all contact with North Korea, including negotiations, constituted a reward for the regime of Kim Jong Il, which has long seen better relations with the United States as key to ending its international isolation. These officials advocate taking a hard line against North Korea.

The opposing camp has argued that even though the U.S. might like to hasten the collapse of the regime, while the nuclear clock was ticking the U.S. must instead seek the narrower goal of persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions. They agree that Pyongyang must not be bribed into such a move, but they say Kim must be offered incentives -- and a way to save face.

Each side claims to be implementing the policies laid out by President Bush. One official, who is in favor of negotiations, expressed frustration with the bickering, saying he did not believe the president knew what his aides were doing in his name.

When Bush gives aides his views and they turn it into "guidance" for subordinates to implement, "it doesn't come out anywhere near what a reasonable person would say is what the president meant," the official said.

"The secretary [of State, Colin L. Powell] got his marching orders from the president on this one," a senior State Department official said.

The administration is willing to talk to North Korea directly within the context of the six-party talks, but because North Korea's nuclear ambitions threaten the entire region, its neighbors must be involved in the solution, the senior official said.

Pritchard "says we have to have a bilateral or nothing ever happens. The secretary and the president say North Korea doesn't make the rules," the official said, adding that America will not come running every time North Korea "does something stupid. Our strategy is to say no."

In an interview Tuesday, Pritchard, a 28-year veteran of the military, the State Department and the National Security Council, said he did not resign in protest, and did not have an ax to grind.

Pritchard said he decided to speak out on policy issues because of the urgent need to stop North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

North Korea has claimed to be reprocessing its 8,000 spent plutonium fuel rods, and U.S. officials believe that it might produce six or more nuclear weapons within a year.

The CIA believes that North Korea probably already has two nuclear devices, and Pyongyang has said it might test or export its weapons depending on how the United States responds to its demands.

At the six-party talks in Beijing last month, the Bush administration made an overture to Kim by saying it would agree to a step-by-step approach by which North Korea would not have to unilaterally disarm before seeing any benefits. Some news reports billed that as a major shift in U.S. policy.

In remarks Monday at his new employer, the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, Pritchard called the movement "minuscule."

Pritchard's departure made waves in Washington because he was the longest-serving North Korea expert in the administration.

He has met with North Korean diplomats for years and accompanied former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to her meetings with Kim in 2000.

In the Clinton administration, Pritchard was seen as a hard-liner, arguing, for example, that President Clinton should not visit Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.

Later, his support for engaging North Korea, at least in direct discussions, placed him in the left wing of the Bush administration, and he was denounced in the conservative media as an appeaser.

Pritchard argued Tuesday that mere contact with the United States did not affect North Korea's strategic decisions. In 2000, even as a senior North Korean military official was in the Oval Office handing Clinton an invitation from Kim to visit, North Korea was moving from dabbling with a research and development program in highly enriched uranium to a secret program to make bombs, Pritchard said. (Clinton declined the invitation.)

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