World and Nation

Bush Signals New Approach With Letter to North Korea

President Bush, directly engaging the man he publicly called a “tyrant,” wrote a letter to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-il, in which he held out the prospect of normalized relations with the United States if North Korea fully discloses its nuclear programs and dismantles its nuclear reactor, administration officials said Thursday.

The high-level personal missive from Bush to the leader of the country he placed in his “axis of evil” in 2002 was sent as U.S. negotiators are struggling to get the secretive North Korean government to fully explain and disclose the extent, use and spread of its nuclear material and technology. At the same time, the United States is also urging other nations to maintain pressure on Iran in the wake of a new assessment that Tehran halted nuclear weapons work in 2003.

Bush began the letter with the salutation “Dear Mr. Chairman,” and urged the enigmatic North Korean leader to reveal all of his country’s past and present nuclear work. “I want to emphasize that the declaration must be complete and accurate if we are to continue our progress,” the letter said, according to a senior administration official.

The letter closed, “Sincerely, George W. Bush.” It was signed by hand, administration officials said.

While administration officials described the letter as straightforward, its very existence underscores just how much the White House wants to ensure that one of the administration’s scarce, tangible diplomatic accomplishments does not slip away.

North Korea agreed in October to dismantle all of its nuclear facilities and to disclose all of its past and present nuclear programs by the end of the year in return for 950,000 metric tons of fuel oil or its equivalent in economic aid. That agreement has come under fierce criticism from national security hawks, but many foreign policy experts point to it as a rare diplomatic success in a period that has been dominated by frustration in Iran, the Middle East and Pakistan.

Another administration official said that the letter flags the need to resolve three sticking points: the number of warheads North Korea built, the amount of weapons-grade nuclear material it produced and the need for North Korea to disclose what nuclear material and knowledge it has received from other countries and what nuclear material and knowledge it has passed on to other countries.

The proliferation issue has taken on new importance since an Israeli strike in Syria in September, which administration and Israeli officials say was conducted against a nuclear facility near the Euphrates River that was supplied with material from North Korea. Administration officials want North Korea to disclose what help it may have given Syria, although they also acknowledge that such help came before North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear reactor and disclose its nuclear programs.

Christopher R. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice indicated on Thursday that Dec. 31 was not a hard and fast deadline for the disclosure, and that it could slip a few days or even weeks.