Amid escalating tensions over Iraq and North Korea, President Bush denounced the leaders of both countries in personal terms Thursday: He warned Saddam Hussein that "his day of reckoning is coming" and accused Kim Jong Il of being "somebody who starves his own people."
Bush's remarks on the Iraqi president, while sharp, were in line with previous statements. But his criticism of the North Korean leader was a departure from his administration's recent script, a shift that foreign policy experts warned could backfire.
"One of the reasons why the people are starving is because the leader of North Korea hasn't seen to it that their economy is strong or that they be fed," the president told reporters at his ranch near Crawford, Texas.
"I have no heart for somebody who starves his folks," Bush said.
Administration officials declined to characterize the president's remarks, so it was unclear whether they signaled a change in the way the administration will deal with the North Korean leader.
Bush also denounced Hussein, calling him "a man who likes to play games and charades."
"Hopefully he realizes we're serious, and hopefully he disarms peacefully," Bush added. "He's a danger to the American people. He's a danger to our friends and allies."
Both leaders are believed to have nuclear ambitions, and their nations, along with Iran, are members of what Bush last year dubbed the "axis of evil." But the administration has resisted comparisons between the two countries' standoffs with the United States. On Iraq, Bush has insisted that only the threat of force will make Hussein acquiesce to demands that he rid his nation of any weapons of mass destruction. But on North Korea, Bush has said that diplomacy -- in close coordination with South Korea, Japan and China -- is the only solution.
Even as the U.S. military buildup accelerates in the Persian Gulf, Bush repeated Thursday that he hopes the conflict with Iraq can be resolved peacefully.
"I'm hopeful we won't have to go to war, and let's leave it at that," the president said.
Bush's personal criticism of Kim Jong Il was not unprecedented: Several months ago, he made similar remarks to author and journalist Bob Woodward, who recounted them in his recent book, "Bush at War."
But Thursday was the first time the president has spoken so forcefully and personally since the crisis with North Korea escalated last month after the Pyongyang regime announced it was restarting its plutonium-based nuclear program.
Foreign policy experts warned that such comments are likely to further antagonize North Korea and make the crisis harder to resolve.
"I think Kim Jong Il is just as bad as Saddam Hussein, but I don't think it's smart diplomacy to personalize it," said Joseph S. Nye, dean of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "I'm surprised that he did."
Nye said personalization of such conflicts may make them more understandable to the American people. But they can easily exacerbate a crisis the administration is trying to resolve.
"There's a two-audiences problem," Nye said. "It makes it easier in terms of domestic policy, but it has costs diplomatically."
Nye said Bush's remarks also play into Kim's hands by implicitly painting the conflict as one between the U.S. and North Korean leaders. Kim has been trying to do just that, to deal directly with the U.S. and bypass South Korea, Japan and China.
Former Clinton administration officials who have grappled with the North Korean issue argued that Bush's comments are especially counterproductive given that Kim personifies the North Korean state to his people and is the object of a powerful, dynastic personality cult.
"In a country where, in the political culture, there is an identification between the leader and the state, I think these comments right now, while true and widely shared, are probably not helpful," said former Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Kurt M. Campbell.
"If your purpose is to try to resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy, then it probably doesn't help to personally insult the leader of the country that you hope to engage with diplomatically," said Gary Samore, formerly a senior National Security Council official under President Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies in London.
The Bush administration has said it won't reward North Korea's "bad behavior" by agreeing to negotiations or resuming fuel shipments halted last month.
"Negotiation and diplomacy should never be equated with rewarding blackmail," Campbell said. "You often negotiate with regimes you have profound dislike for," including decades of U.S. dealings with Communist China and the Soviet Union.
Campbell and Samore said that, in effect, the Bush administration has boxed itself in by demanding that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons program as a precondition for negotiations.
The North Koreans indicate that they will only discuss their nuclear program as part of broader talks about their security, the experts said.
"The contradiction for the Bush administration is they say that the North Korean situation can be dealt with by diplomacy, but they're not trying diplomacy," Samore said.
Times staff writer Sonni Efron contributed to this report.