Bush's 'axis of evil' rhetoric still draws fire at home, abroad

Saturday, February 23, 2002

BEIJING -- President Bush softened his "axis of evil" rhetoric in Asia, but his strong words already had gotten North Korea's attention, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Friday. Indeed, North Korea shot back that Bush was "a politically backward child."

North Korea issued its angry response as Bush flew back to Washington from a six-day journey to China, South Korea and Japan where his "axis of evil" comment stirred unease or outright opposition.

Former President Carter also criticized Bush's language. "I think it will take years before we can repair the damage done by that statement," Carter said. He called the statement "overly simplistic and counterproductive."

Powell said Bush's remark had had the desired effect. "I'm sure their mind is a little more focused than it was a few weeks ago," Powell said on Air Force One, accompanying Bush.

Bush lumped North Korea with Iraq and Iran in his State of the Union address last month, saying they were seeking weapons of mass destruction and endangering world peace. Visiting Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing this week, Bush sought to quell fears of imminent military action, principally by offering to reopen talks with North Korea.

Powell said Bush didn't go to Asia to spend a lot of time talking about the "axis of evil" but wanted to put his views in context, particularly in South Korea. In Bush's discussions with President Kim Dae-jung, "They never talked about it, didn't have to," Powell said. "It was in the background, everybody knew it was in the ether, that wasn't the issue."

Powell said the United States would work through channels in the United Nations to renew its offer for dialogue. But North Korea rejected the overture.

No 'clan' contact

A spokesman for North Korea's Foreign Ministry, quoted by the official Korean Central News Agency, said of Bush, "We are not willing to have contact with his clan, which is trying to change by force of arms the system chosen by the Korean people."

Bush made clear on his trip he had no intention of easing pressure on Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

"All options are on the table" regarding Iraq, he said in Tokyo, though he was less willing than usual to hint at future military action.

"We want to resolve all issues peacefully, whether it be Iraq, Iran or North Korea, for that matter," Bush said.

Later, standing at Korea's demilitarized zone separating the North from the South, the president virtually ruled out military strikes across the DMZ.

"We have no intention of invading North Korea," the president at a session with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Dae-jung, who has had a policy of reaching out to the North.

Bush spoke of starving North Koreans, "cogs in the machinery of the state" whose lives would be better off with the prosperity and freedom of democracy.

The focus on the quality of life in the North marked a shift in Bush's justification for calling the three nations evil. Until the trip, he had focused on the production of weapons of mass destruction by Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and their ties to terrorists.

Aides said the new formulation was an effort to personalize the threat for Americans.

In Beijing, he sought to assure Chinese President Jiang Zemin that America was not bracing for war against fellow communist Kim Jong Ill of North Korea.

"Not every theater in the war against terror need be resolved with force. Some theaters can be resolved through diplomacy and dialogue," Bush said. He asked Jiang to help bring North Korea's Kim to the table with U.S. diplomats.

Less-than-warm reception

Jiang did not promise to carry the message for Bush, and offered a less-than-warm reception to Bush's views on Iraq.

"Peace is to be valued most," the Chinese leader admonished.

The leaders of Japan and South Korea did not criticize Bush's views. Nor did they embrace them.

"The expression 'axis of evil' I believe reflects the firm resolve of President Bush and the United States against terrorism," said Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Bush shrugged off the suggestion that he might be going it alone in the next phase on terrorism.

"The leaders I've talked to fully understand, exactly, what needs to happen," he said. "They understand the resolve of the United States of America. They understand that our commitment is not just in Afghanistan, that history has given us a unique opportunity to defend freedom. And we're going to seize the moment, and do it."

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