Key U.S. Officials in the North Korean Nuclear Standoff

Jonathan M. Katz

For the last decade, U.S. policy toward North Korea has been a battleground in Washington; Pyongyang’s recent withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and announcement that it possesses nuclear weapons has only intensified the debate over U.S. policy within the Bush administration and among members of Congress. Much of the debate revolves around whether the United States should seek a diplomatic solution with North Korea, and if so, the nature of any deal.

Some of the key U.S. participants in the debate have long opposed U.S. engagement with North Korea, in particular the 1994 Agreed Framework. The accord halted activities at North Korea’s plutonium-based nuclear facilities; in exchange, the United States agreed to provide the country with two proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors and heavy-fuel oil. Other U.S. leaders considered the accord the best solution to a dicey situation.

This article provides a brief glimpse of the views and backgrounds of some of the key people who will decide and implement U.S. policy toward North Korea. As the tug-of-war over the issue continues in Washington, the views of the strongest players are likely to determine future U.S. policy.

Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage

Richard Armitage brought a hefty defense résumé and considerable experience on Asian issues to the State Department when he was appointed deputy secretary of state in March 2001. So close to Secretary of State Colin Powell that he refers to Powell as “homeboy,” he has taken a lead role on North Korea policy. A former assistant defense secretary under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, Armitage is a graduate of the Naval Academy who completed three combat tours in Vietnam. From 1981 to 1983, Armitage was deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia and Pacific affairs. In 1992, Armitage acted as ambassador to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union. Until his March 2001 appointment as deputy secretary of state, he served as president of his consulting firm, Armitage Associates L.C.

Assistant Secretary James Kelly

Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly represented the United States at the first round of negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. The three-day talks broke down hours earlier than expected on April 25 after North Korea declared itself to be a nuclear power.

Kelly was named assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in April 2001. The current nuclear crisis with North Korea began in October 2002 when Kelly visited North Korea; U.S. officials said the North Koreans told Kelly the country was operating a covert, illicit uranium-enrichment program. Previously, he had advised Washington officials on East Asian and Pacific matters for six years during the Reagan administration as special assistant for national security affairs and as a deputy assistant defense secretary.

Admiral Thomas Boulton Fargo

Admiral Thomas Boulton Fargo has commanded the U.S. Pacific Command, at Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii, since May 2002. The equivalent of the U.S. Central Command’s General Tommy Franks, Fargo directs U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force operations across more than 100 million square miles in the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters of operation. If the United States were to go to war on the Korean Peninsula, Fargo would command all U.S. forces in the region. U.S. troop deployments in South Korea have also become an issue as tensions have grown between the two longtime allies.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

Even in the midst of the war with Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned North Korea, Syria, and Iran against refusing to comply with demands to disarm. He advocated economic pressure and diplomatic arm-twisting to obtain compliance from Kim Jong Il’s government. Rumsfeld has also suggested that the United States could join with China in a policy of overthrowing Kim Jong Il’s regime.
In December 2002, Rumsfeld put Pyongyang on alert. “We are capable of fighting two major regional conflicts. We’re capable of winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the case of the other, and let there be no doubt about it,” he told London’s Guardian newspaper.

Senator Richard Lugar

Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) chairs the Foreign Relations Committee. He is considered an expert on weapons of mass destruction, having forged a bipartisan agreement in 1991 to provide funds for destroying and safeguarding nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons in the former Soviet Union. Since regaining the chairmanship of the panel this year, Lugar has worked closely with Bush administration officials on U.S. policy.

Lugar has argued for multilateral engagement with Pyongyang and was pleased with China’s crucial role in bringing North Korea to the table in April, said a senior staff member on the committee. Lugar fears the prospect of accidental war on the peninsula due to a misunderstanding or miscalculation on either side, the aide said. Lugar has also said, however, that the administration should not rule out the use of force if necessary as a “very last resort.”

Senator Carl Levin

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) is the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee and has served in the Senate since 1978. After a 1998 visit to North Korea, Levin described it as a “basket-case country.” The North Korean government, he said, concentrated on building military might while the Korean people starved. He also said that North Korea could pose a threat to U.S. security.
He has criticized the Bush administration, however, for using aggressive rhetoric with North Korea. War-like language plays into the paranoia of the North Korean government, he said.

Senator Joseph Biden, Jr.

“North Korea is responsible for this crisis, but we are responsible for doing everything we can to find a way out of it,” Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) said February 4. Biden, ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee, has criticized the Bush administration for its “malign neglect” of North Korea and emphasized the importance of a diplomatic solution to the problem of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. In February, Biden, who supports the Agreed Framework, called on the administration to consider not only multilateral talks, but also “direct talks between the United States and North Korea.”

Representative Henry Hyde

As chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Representative Henry Hyde (R-IL) spoke out in 2001 against the transfer of nuclear power plants to North Korea, and he has also called for strict oversight of North Korean nuclear activities. He has joined with Cox and Markey in co-authoring several North Korea-related measures.

Representative Christopher Cox
In January, Representative Christopher Cox (R-CA) was appointed head of the House Homeland Security Committee. The congressman was previously associated with East Asian policy in 1998, when he chaired the House select committee investigating the alleged sale of nuclear secrets to China under the Clinton administration.

Cox is fiercely critical of the 1994 Agreed Framework, saying that pressure should have been applied to North Korea years ago. Along with Markey and Hyde, Cox has co-authored several pieces of hard-line legislation against North Korea that have passed in the more conservative House but stalled in the more moderate Senate.

Representative Edward Markey

Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), co-chair of the Bi-Partisan Commission on Nonproliferation, also opposes the Agreed Framework. He is a longtime foe of nuclear power who has extended this opposition to U.S. dealings with North Korea. When Energy Department officials said last month that they were still trading documents on nuclear energy with North Korea as part of the accord, Markey wrote a letter demanding that the trading stop.

Markey has also repeatedly asked both the Clinton and Bush administrations to stop the U.S.-led construction of two light-water nuclear reactors in North Korea. The United States agreed to help build the reactors, as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework.