Bush Strongly Defends His N. Korea Policies

Times Staff Writers

President Bush on Friday defended his administration’s policies on North Korea, questioning claims that the regime in Pyongyang had grown more dangerous since he entered the White House.

The North Koreans test-fired seven missiles this week, and Bush said he still did not know whether one of them, a long-range intercontinental missile, was aimed at the U.S. or even could have flown that far.

He said the United States’ controversial missile defense system might have been able to shoot the rocket out of the sky if that had become necessary.

“I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down. At least that’s what the military commanders told me,” Bush said at a news conference. “It’s new research. It’s hard for me to give you a probability of success.”

Outside experts have given more pessimistic assessments of the missile defense program and its capabilities.


The president grew testy when asked why, if his policies were working, North Korea appeared to be improving its nuclear capabilities and growing more aggressive.

“These problems didn’t arise overnight and they don’t get solved overnight. It takes awhile,” Bush said, offering the most strenuous defense of his policies since North Korea escalated its standoff with the U.S. with the test firings Wednesday.

Bush sought to counter the suggestion that North Korea had expanded its nuclear weapons capability in recent years, challenging a reporter when she asked a question that cited intelligence reports about the North’s growing nuclear threat. Bush declined to dispute the basis of the question but asked the reporter, “Can you verify that?”

“We don’t know -- maybe you know more than I do -- about increasing the number of nuclear weapons,” Bush said, noting that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has violated proliferation agreements before.

Several administration officials have talked publicly about North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal. In congressional hearings last year, top U.S. intelligence officials, including then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss, testified that Pyongyang’s nuclear capability had increased since 2002, when intelligence assessments estimated that the nation possessed one or two nuclear weapons.

In testimony Feb. 16, 2005, for example, Goss said the North Koreans “have a greater capability than that assessment .... It has increased since then.”

In another 2005 hearing, then-Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lowell Jacoby said North Korea was believed to be able to arm a missile with a nuclear device, an apparent advance, although Defense Department officials later sought to clarify his remarks as theoretical.

National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte, asked during a Feb. 28, 2005, hearing about North Korea’s weapons capability, said the government in Pyongyang was “regularly” producing fissile material for weapons.

White House officials fear that the issue of North Korea’s missiles has contributed to public doubts about Bush’s foreign policy record in an election year. Republicans hope that Bush’s tough stand on national security will be a winning issue for them with voters.

Missile defense has been a part of that tough stance. Bush conceded that the anti-missile system he has backed is “modest” and unproven. But he said it had been ready to shoot down one of the North Korean missiles if necessary.

Bush’s assessment was in line with that given recently by military commanders. Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, gave a similarly optimistic assessment during a National Defense University address last month.

But outside experts, including the Government Accountability Office, have been more critical in recent months.

The centerpiece of the system, nine interceptor missiles in Alaska and two at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California, has been plagued by glitches and has not had a successful test in nearly four years. Last year, Obering went so far as to shut down all tests in order to overhaul the system, and he only recently approved a new testing schedule, which is expected to be implemented next month.

Bush’s statements came as diplomats at the United Nations continued working on ways to pressure North Korea to halt its drive for nuclear weapons and rejoin stalled international talks. Japan and the United States are pressing the U.N. Security Council to vote Monday on sanctions targeting North Korea’s missile program, despite opposition from China and Russia, which hold veto power.

Japan’s U.N. ambassador, Kenzo Oshima, said Friday that the time had come for the council to act “firmly, robustly and speedily.”

He introduced a resolution calling for a global ban on buying or selling any technology materials and goods related to North Korea’s missile program.

After days of talks, Japan slightly strengthened the language on the sanctions, deciding against diluting it in an effort to win support from China and Russia.

China drafted a less punitive “presidential statement” to convey the Security Council’s concern, but U.S., British and Japanese diplomats rejected that approach Thursday evening, pressing Japan’s resolution in the hope that China and Russia would not veto it. The two countries could abstain in the vote, allowing the resolution to pass while registering their opposition.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, on a diplomatic swing through Northeast Asia in search of a unified response to North Korea, told reporters Friday in Beijing that Pyongyang can join the world or remain cut off.

Hill, who is traveling to China, South Korea and Japan, chose to tackle his toughest assignment first. China is on record as opposing economic sanctions against North Korea.

The gap between the U.S. and China on the issue reflects differing assessments of North Korea’s intentions and capabilities.

Where Washington sees a dangerous regime intent on threatening global stability, Beijing sees an impoverished neighbor engaged in bluffing -- one that could implode under pressure, sending millions of refugees into China.

Hill’s comments, following a day of meetings with Chinese officials, suggested Beijing shares Washington’s displeasure with this week’s launches. But Hill said nothing to suggest the two were on the same page over what to do next.

“This is a kind of acting,” said Zhang Liangui, an analyst with the Central Party School’s Institute of International Strategy in Beijing, referring to the missile launches. “The political significance of this action is bigger than its military significance.”

Wallsten reported from Chicago and Farley from the United Nations. Times staff writers Peter Spiegel in Washington and Mark Magnier in Beijing contributed to this report.