by David Rennie in Washington
Tuesday 23 April 2003
A secret Donald Rumsfeld memorandum calling for regime change in North Korea was leaked yesterday, opening a fresh foreign policy split in the Bush administration.
The classified discussion paper, circulated by the defense secretary, appears to cut directly across State Department plans to disarm Kim Jong-il, the North's dictator, through threats leavened by promises that his regime is not a target for overthrow.
The paper does not call for military action against North Korea, but wants the United States to team up with China in pushing for the collapse of Kim Jong-il's bankrupt but belligerent regime, the New York Times reported.
In a sign that Washington is girding itself for a repetition of the bitter rows that preceded the Iraq conflict, the memorandum was leaked on the same day that a senior State Department negotiator flew to Beijing for three-way talks with China and North Korea.
Officials working for Mr Rumsfeld are implacably opposed to the talks, pointing to North Korea's long history of extorting aid and concessions in return for promises - never kept - to behave in a more reasonable way.
Instead, they seek to use the salutary effect of the rapid victory in Iraq to push North Korea to scrap its nuclear weapons program immediately.
They also want to demand weapons inspections across the country. That would be an unthinkable concession for a Stalinist police state that bars even aid agencies from a third of its territory.
This raises the prospect that Washington would be urging inspections for form's sake and with little hope of success, much as happened in Iraq.
Even before the American envoy, James Kelly, arrived in Beijing for the talks, there were signs of new North Korean brinksmanship.
Pyongyang released conflicting statements last Friday, saying in an English language text that it had started reprocessing spent fuel rods into plutonium, a dramatic step that would place it only months from producing several nuclear warheads. However, a Korean version of the statement said that Pyongyang was merely poised to begin reprocessing.
Supporters of the diplomatic approach attacked the Pentagon proposal as ludicrous. They said that Beijing, while appalled by North Korea's recent behavior, would never join an American-led campaign to topple its communist neighbor.
An unnamed senior administration official told the New York Times: "The last thing the Chinese want is a collapse of North Korea that will create a flood of refugees into China and put Western allies on the Chinese border."
The White House says that regime change in North Korea is not official policy, despite the country's inclusion with Iraq and Iran in President George W Bush's "axis of evil".
Mr Bush has said that he "loathes" Kim Jong-il, who is believed to have killed a tenth of his population through starvation and imprisonment in vast labour camps.
Colin Powell, the secretary of state, is said to have secured the president's approval for a carrot and stick approach in a meeting last week. Mr Powell called for threats to withhold aid and investment from North Korea, while assuring the regime that it faces no threat from the United States.
Mr Rumsfeld, who was "distracted" by the war against Saddam Hussein, did not attend the meeting and may now be trying to regain some traction in the Korea debate, officials speculated.
Mr Bush, who appears willing to let his senior aides scrap over policy before taking a final decision, endorsed Mr Kelly's diplomatic mission at the weekend and thanked Beijing for hosting the talks.
He said that China's involvement meant there was "a good chance of convincing North Korea to abandon her ambitions to develop nuclear arsenals".
The Clinton administration drew up plans to bomb the main North Korean nuclear site at Yongbyon. But the generally far more hawkish Bush government has long contended that talk of military action against North Korea is unrealistic, given the country's huge conventional arsenals aimed at South Korea.
Instead, conservatives have advocated letting North Korea "stew in its own juice", cutting off the overseas aid which sustains the crumbling regime until it collapses under its own weight.
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