Michael Gerson

By my count, at least five former high-level Bush administration officials are deeply disillusioned with the current policy on North Korea.

This brewing discontent broke into open revolt two weeks ago when Jay Lefkowitz, the special envoy on North Korean human rights, committed the gaffe of stating the obvious: North Korea is not serious about nuclear disarmament. The current six-party talks will do little to change that fact. And the price we are paying to pursue those talks is silence about the suffering of a brutalized, friendless people.

Afterward, even some of Lefkowitz's supporters complained that he had ventured "out of his lane." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice slapped the special envoy down hard, noting to reporters that he "doesn't know what's going on in the six-party talks." Lefkowitz's speech was quickly scrubbed from the State Department's Web site.

But Lefkowitz spoke after 2 1/2 years of frustration. The East Asia bureau at the State Department, headed by Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, has consistently viewed the raising of human rights as an impediment to the serious work of negotiating with Kim Jong Il. The Korea desk tried and failed to exclude Lefkowitz from important policy meetings with the president. It attempted unsuccessfully to weaken the North Korea section in the State Department's annual human rights report. Human rights groups generally view Hill with great suspicion.

Some State Department officials working in nonproliferation and intelligence reportedly share Lefkowitz's dissatisfaction. But, as one former Bush official made clear to me, "Rice's treatment of Jay shows that you need to stay quiet if you want to stay in government."

Even critics of the current approach believe that the agreement reached last February was worth a try. After testing a nuclear weapon, North Korea was under serious international pressure. The U.N. Security Council passed a tough resolution that included economic sanctions. So North Korea promised to move away from its nuclear ambitions in stages, beginning with a freeze on work at its plutonium reactor and enrichment complex -- though some experts suspected that the plant was already nearing the end of its useful life. In return, the North Koreans received pledges for 1 million tons of heavy fuel oil.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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