WASHINGTON - President Bush's personal letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, raising the possibility of normalized relations if he discloses his nuclear programs fully by year's end, is a turnabout for a president who has called the communist regime part of an "axis of evil."
"I want to emphasize that the declaration must be complete and accurate if we are to continue our progress," Bush wrote, according to an excerpt of the Dec. 1 letter obtained by the Associated Press.
The Bush administration sought to play down the diplomatic significance of the letter, Bush's first to the reclusive North Korean leader. Yet it reflected how U.S. policy toward the nation has shifted from the days when Bush shunned the dictator.
The letter might sate Kim's craving to be recognized by the United States as a player on the world stage. But White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush meant it as a "reminder" to North Korea that it had pledged to provide - by the end of the month - a complete and accurate disclosure of its nuclear programs.
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose the contents of the letter, said Bush indicated to Kim that if North Korea does what it has agreed to do, and the Korean peninsula was denuclearized, normalization would ultimately result.
The United States is looking for a complete declaration of North Korea's nuclear facilities, materials and programs and also insists that it address any role that the North Koreans have played in spreading nuclear technology or know-how to others.
Bush sent similar letters on Dec. 1 to the leaders of Russia, China, Japan and South Korea - the other nations involved in the six-party nuclear talks - to reiterate his desire to resolve the nuclear standoff. He also spoke about the issue on the phone yesterday with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Under the watchful eye of U.S. experts, North Korea started disabling its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon, which was shut down in July, and two other facilities last month.
Neither the White House nor the State Department would release the letters or disclose their content.
A U.S. official told the AP that the letter to North Korea referred to a need to resolve three main sticking points: the exact amount of weapons-grade nuclear material the North produced, the number of warheads it built, and whether and how North Korea may have passed nuclear material or knowledge to others.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe details of the delicate diplomacy, said the letter underscored Bush's desire to resolve the nuclear dispute and made plain that North Korea cannot skirt requirements to fully explain the extent, use and possible spread of nuclear material and technology.