Departure of Powell to Impact Asia in More Ways Than One

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Colin Powell's resignation as Secretary of State will affect Asian nations, not just in obvious way but also indirectly because his deputy, who has played an especially high-profile role in Asia, is expected to follow suit.

The departure of Powell and his allies could see changes in the way Washington approaches the North Korean nuclear issue.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday there was a "general expectation" that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage also would be leaving. He said the secretary and his deputy were regarded as a team and it would likely be a case of "in together, out together."

Armitage has traveled widely since he was sworn in as Powell's deputy in March 2001.

He formerly held State and Defense department posts dealing with policy in the Asia-Pacific, including U.S.-Japan and U.S.-China security relationships, and so it came as no surprise that as deputy secretary he became a regular visitor to South and East Asian capitals.

Along with the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, James Kelly, Armitage has played a leading role in handling the most pressing current issue in Asia - the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Kelly also is considered an ally of Powell's, although it remains unclear whether he plans to leave too. Before taking up his present post, Kelly was president of the Honolulu-based CSIS Pacific Forum, and the think tank's website still lists him under senior staff, as "Counselor (on leave)."

Boucher indicated Monday there may be other departures in the department, saying that "personally for me and for many others that there was a something about working for Secretary Powell that made us sort of stay in jobs longer than we might otherwise have done."

Kelly has been the Bush administration's point man on North Korea, and he was the official who first confronted the North Koreans with evidence of their nuclear cheating two years ago.

Last April, U.S. newspapers reported that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was pushing to have Kelly replaced as chief negotiator with the North Koreans by undersecretary for arms control John Bolton, an official described as a "hawk" who has not shied away from criticizing North Korea.

The reports prompted the State Department publicly to defend Kelly, who continued to head up the diplomacy.

Efforts to resolve the issue have taken the form of talks involving the U.S., North and South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

Officials in Japan, Washington's closest ally in the six-party talks, hinted Tuesday at concerns that Powell's departure could lead to an even tougher U.S. approach toward Pyongyang.

"The U.S. government has taken an extremely hard stance on the North Korean nuclear issue," chief cabinet secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told a press conference. He predicted that once the question of Iran's nuclear programs had been settled, "the next will be North Korea."

Hosoda, who is the government's chief spokesman, expressed confidence however that irrespective of President Bush's second term cabinet line-up, the policy of "mutual confidence" would continue.

Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura said he believed basic U.S. policy on the six-party talks would not change.

In other Japanese response to the news, Defense Agency head Yoshinori Ono told reporters Powell's planned departure "is a pity because continuity is important in Japan-U.S. relations. But even with his resignation, I would like to continue as before to build a strong bilateral relationship."

There was no immediate response from Washington's other ally in the six-party talks, South Korea.

But South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who is currently on a visit to Latin America, has in recent days pressed for a more accommodating stance towards Pyongyang and criticizing those who he said appeared to be anticipating the collapse of the North Korean regime - sometimes dubbed the "collapsist" school of thought.

"We cannot conclude that North Korea has necessarily been trying to develop nuclear weapons to attack somebody or support terrorism," Roh said in a speech to the World Affairs Council during a stopover in Los Angeles on Friday.

The comments appeared to be aimed at administration officials like Bolton, who in a recent speech in Tokyo said there was no doubt the Stalinist state remained "the world's foremost proliferator of ballistic missiles and related technology to rogue states and hostile regimes."

Some conservative commentators, including American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Michael Ledeen, have suggested that Bolton would make a sound national security advisor in Bush's second term cabinet.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow