Details of the document have emerged only days before the US and China are due to meet North Korea to try to convince it to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
It argues that Washington’s goal should be the collapse of Kim Jong Il’s Government, but this seems at odds with the US State Department’s approach of convincing Kim, in the words of one senior administration official, “that we’re not trying to take him out”.
Hardliners in the Pentagon – and some at the White House – say the US should use its speedy victory in Iraq to drive home to North Korea that it could meet the same fate if it ignores President George Bush’s demands: that it dismantle its nuclear weapons program, ship its spent nuclear fuel out of the country and open up to intrusive inspections.
Just days before Mr Bush approved the negotiations with North Korea, scheduled for tomorrow, Mr Rumsfeld circulated the Pentagon memo to some members of the Administration.
Mr Rumsfeld’s team, Administration officials say, was urging diplomatic pressure for changing the Government, not a military solution. But the memo highlights the internal struggle over how to pursue Mr Bush’s determination to stop the spread of nuclear arms and unconventional weapons.
North Korea is the critical next case in his policy of zero tolerance for “rogue states” because, unlike Iraq, it has active nuclear programs. The CIA believes Pyongyang is selling missiles to Iran, Syria, Pakistan and other nations.
The Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is believed to have offered North Korea assurances that the US is not trying to undermine its Government – but has made it clear the country will get no aid and investment until the nuclear programs are dismantled.
He received final approval for his approach in a meeting with Mr Bush last week, a session Mr Rumsfeld did not attend. “There’s a sense in the Pentagon that Powell got this arranged while everyone was distracted with Iraq,” said one intelligence official. “And now there is a race over who will control the next steps.”
On Friday, in its first explicit comment on the Iraq war, North Korea said it had learned something from the fall of Saddam Hussein: “In order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation, it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent.”
But this week’s talks were nearly scuttled when North Korea issued a statement that appeared to suggest it had already begun reprocessing its spent nuclear fuel into bomb-grade plutonium. Yesterday it quietly issued a correction saying it was moving towards this but had not already done so.
On the weekend, Mr Bush said China’s willingness to intervene in the negotiations contributed to “a good chance of convincing North Korea to abandon her ambitions to develop nuclear arsenals”.
However, few in the Administration believe it will work.
Nevertheless, White House officials say a change of government in North Korea is not official Administration policy – and some suggest the secret memo was circulated for discussion among high-level officials, including the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, and may not represent Mr Rumsfeld’s view. His spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said he supported the President’s diplomatic strategy for disarming North Korea.
Several officials who have seen it say it is ludicrous to think China would join in any US-led effort to bring about the fall of the North Korean Government. “The last thing the Chinese want,” one official said, “is a collapse of North Korea that will create a flood of refugees into China and put Western allies on the Chinese border.”