WASHINGTON -- In his first known direct communication with the leader of North Korea, whom his administration has called a "tyrannical rogue," President Bush sent Kim Jong Il a hand-signed letter reminding him of his commitment to disclose the details of his country's nuclear weapons program by the end of the year, the White House said yesterday.
The letter was one in a series Bush dispatched to the participants of the so-called six-party talks aimed at securing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. It was given to the North Korean foreign minister Dec. 1, the White House said.
Moving into the final year of his term, Bush appeared to be using his personal involvement to pressure both North Korea and others in the talks to keep their efforts on track to resolve what has long been one of the most intransigent issues on Washington's foreign policy agenda. At the same time, the letter to Kim suggested that Bush, in order to accomplish that goal, was setting aside the scorn he had heaped on the mercurial leader, whose country he yoked with Iran and Iraq in 2002 in the "axis of evil."
On Oct. 3, North Korea reaffirmed a previous commitment to provide, by the end of the year, details about its nuclear program - including the number of weapons in its arsenal and the extent of its program to enrich uranium, which can be used in a nuclear power plant or in a nuclear warhead.
It agreed, among other things, to list precisely how much weapons-grade nuclear material it has produced and whether it had provided nuclear material or information to others.
The agreement represented a major shift in the year since North Korea's long-clandestine nuclear program produced an underground nuclear explosion.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said the letter to the North Korean leader - which began "Dear Chairman," reflecting Kim's role as chairman of the country's National Defense Commission - was sent as a "reminder" of the commitment to provide "a complete and accurate declaration" about the nuclear operations.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who delivered the letter, had already made similar points to North Korean officials, but they appeared to have signaled that whatever report they produced by the Dec. 31 deadline would be less than complete.
Speaking with reporters as she flew to NATO meetings in Brussels, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that the deadline may be slipping, but she appeared to not be overly concerned.
"It is going to take a monumental effort to get all of this done by the end of the year," she said, according to Associated Press. "And I am not too concerned about whether it's Dec. 31 or not. They seem to be on track. Everybody believes the cooperation is very good."
According to Kurt M. Campbell, a former senior National Security Council and Pentagon official who now leads the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy research organization, Hill delivered the letter after already beginning talks with the North Koreans - suggesting that the envoy and other administration officials felt a need to use the president's personal statement to hammer home their insistence that the North live up to the full agreement.
At the same time, Campbell said, by sending similar letters to the other negotiating partners, Bush was reminding them that a failure by North Korea to honor its pledge would be a slap in the face directed at each of them.
The other nations in the talks are South Korea, Russia, China and Japan.
On various occasions, Bush has gone out of this way to include Chinese President Hu Jintao in the effort directed at North Korea. That added heft to the international campaign, and it also brought Hu in as a negotiating partner, giving him a stake in the outcome, because North Korea's failure to live up to its commitments would be a direct snub of China.
Bush and Hu spoke by telephone about North Korea and Iran yesterday, the White House said.
James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.