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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush's Intentions Remain a Mystery

WASHINGTON -- An Asian diplomat emerged from one of the many meetings on defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis saying that no one could know what Kim Jong Il wants: a nuclear arsenal or a new relationship with the West.

But the real mystery, he said, is here in Washington. "I'd just like to get a handle on what President Bush has in mind," he said. This administration, he said, "sends as many conflicting signals as the North Koreans."

Even many of U.S. President George W. Bush's staunchest loyalists concede that the administration's approach to North Korea has been a confusing case study in atomic diplomacy. The White House took 18 months to settle on a strategy that promised real engagement, including eventual security guarantees and normalization of relations that North Korea has craved for years. In the end, the offer was never made because of revelations about North Korea's secret nuclear program.

Then, perhaps hoping that it could avoid a confrontation that would distract from its campaign against Iraq, Bush never described to North Korea what might happen if it crosses the nuclear "red lines." Though he has often said he will never allow "the world's worst dictators to obtain the world's worst weapons," Bush has never specifically warned North Korea about how -- if at all -- he would respond if the country began producing bomb-grade plutonium that could produce half a dozen weapons by summer.

"We ended up with a policy that could best be described as 'hostile neglect,'" said one senior administration official who sat, often fuming, as State Department, Pentagon and White House officials replayed old arguments.

The North Koreans themselves bear primary responsibility for the crisis, he said. But he added: "We managed to back ourselves into the worst of both worlds. We won't describe to the North Koreans what good things might happen if they reverse direction, dismantle their nuclear facilities and rejoin the world."

At the same time, he added, Bush's team is so intent on not risking a military confrontation with North Korea at a moment when tens of thousands of troops are headed toward the Persian Gulf that Bush has suppressed his natural inclination to "warn them of the very bad things that this president could make happen to them if they start producing bombs."

It is a choice Bush may soon have to make. In private conversations with reporters, administration officials have acknowledged that if North Korea takes its stockpile of 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods out of storage and begins trucking them to a nearby nuclear reprocessing center, Bush may have to decide whether to run the enormous risk of ordering a pre-emptive strike on the plant or to allow North Korea to spend the next few months building a serious nuclear arsenal.

It is an option no one in the White House wants to discuss. Even some of the administration's most outspoken hawks say a pre-emptive strike might not solve the problem, now that North Korea has admitted to a second nuclear project that U.S. intelligence agencies have still not located.

Bush faced his first choices on North Korea in March, 2001. As he prepared for a meeting with President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea, who supported engagement with the North, his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, described her distaste for the 1994 agreed framework that promised North Korea oil and proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants in return for a freeze on its nuclear program.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was publicly praising elements of President Bill Clinton's end-of-term initiatives with North Korea. He was soon forced to mute that praise, joking later, "I was a little forward on my skis."

The split in attitudes toward North Korea that was revealed at the time was never really resolved.

Now many experts inside and outside the administration are convinced that North Korea is racing to produce weapons.

There may not be much time to reach a decision. "The question," one senior official said, "is how willing is the president to tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea?" He paused, and added: "I don't know. I don't know if anyone knows."