A U.S. official, in a rare public departure from Bush administration policy, on Thursday criticized the nuclear talks with North Korea, which he contended is not serious about disarming.
Jay Lefkowitz, President Bush's envoy on North Korean human rights, said the North will likely "remain in its present nuclear status" when the next U.S. president takes over in January 2009, despite four years of nuclear disarmament efforts.
"North Korea is not serious about disarming in a timely manner," Lefkowitz told an audience at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, referring to the North's recent missed deadlines and a surge in what he called "bellicose language."
"We should consider a new approach to North Korea," he said.
Lefkowitz suggested that negotiators should link human rights and security concerns, something the six-nation talks do not do. The North's treatment of its people, he said, is "inhumane and, therefore, deeply offensive to us."
"The key," Lefkowitz said of his proposal, "is to make the link between human rights and other issues explicit and non-severable, so that it cannot be discarded in any future rush to get to 'yes' in an agreement."
Lefkowitz's comments are at odds with recent statements by other Bush administration officials.
Early in the administration, U.S. officials took a hard line on North Korea. But, recently, they have been cautious not to criticize the North for fear of unraveling the delicate nuclear negotiations.
When the North missed an end-of-2007 deadline to declare of all its nuclear programs, the comments by the chief U.S. envoy to the nuclear talks were measured. Christopher Hill pushed the North to quickly produce a "complete and correct" declaration. But he also indicated that the U.S. was prepared to wait.
Hill has said he hopes the North's declaration would serve as a road map for dismantling its atomic programs by the end of 2008.
‘It makes sense to review the assumptions’
When asked if Lefkowitz was speaking on behalf of the Bush administration, he said U.S. policies "are under review right now" but avoided answering the question directly. "I'm not sure any policy, at any point in time, is set in stone," he said.
After four years of six-nation talks, he said, "it makes sense to review the assumptions upon which previous policy was built and make sure they are still valid today."
Some former Bush administration officials, including John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have criticized the current U.S. approach to dealing with North Korea.
Lefkowitz criticized China and South Korea — which, along with the U.S., North Korea, Japan and Russia, make up the six nations — for preferring "the status quo over a process of change" and for not using their leverage as the North's major benefactors to spur nuclear talks.
"China probably would prefer that North Korea not have nuclear weapons, but not at the expense of its other national interests," he said.
He compared North Korea to "an inherently fragile regime desperately clinging to power," and said the North, like other "repressive regimes," creates "enemies abroad to justify their authoritarian rule at home."