Bush Rejects Solo Talks With North Korea

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 8, 2006

CHICAGO, July 7 -- President Bush on Friday defended his response to the budding crisis spawned by North Korea's missile tests, saying he will not "get caught in the trap of sitting alone with North Korea at the table."

Bush said he will patiently wait for the other countries taking part in the six-party talks to speak with a single voice, urging North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program and refrain from further long-range missile tests -- a process that he acknowledged will take time.

"The problem with diplomacy, it takes a while to get something done," Bush said. "If you're acting alone, you can move quickly. When you're rallying world opinion and trying to come up with the right language at the United Nations to send a clear signal, it takes a while."

The United States is working with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea to urge North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. The White House has encouraged tough economic sanctions since Tuesday's launch of seven missiles, including one with the capacity to reach Alaska. But China and Russia have resisted sanctions, even as Pyongyang has threatened to move ahead with more tests.

Bush's comments came during an unusual news conference here at the Museum of Science and Industry. With the exception of his foreign trips, Bush almost always holds news conferences at the White House. But Friday's event involved local reporters as well as the national news media who travel with him.

"I'm sure you're wondering why I would have a press conference in Chicago," Bush said. "It's a fabulous city; plus, I like to see what it's like to have a major press conference outside of Washington. It might do me some good. The truth of the matter is, it might do the White House press corps some good as well."

As campaigns heat up for November's midterm elections and with the president's popularity hovering below 40 percent in most public opinion polls, White House officials said Bush's appearance is his first in a series planned in coming months.

"You're going to see some times where the president goes out, spends a bit of time in a place, talks with the leaders, drills into the issues, listens to what they have to say, builds trips generally around one topic," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Typically when Bush travels domestically, he delivers a speech and quickly moves on. But Bush began his visit here Thursday evening with a dinner with Mayor Richard M. Daley (D) and local business leaders. Before his news conference Friday morning, he had breakfast with other local executives.

After his news conference, Bush attended a $1.2 million fundraiser for gubernatorial challenger Judy Baar Topinka, the three-term state treasurer who is the only Republican to hold statewide office in Illinois. He then traveled to nearby Aurora to tout his efforts to bolster high-tech research and education at Cabot Microelectronics, which makes substances that help in the manufacture of sophisticated semiconductors.

Despite widespread public discontent with GOP congressional leaders, Bush predicted that Republicans will keep control of the House and Senate, allowing them to continue setting the nation's legislative agenda for the next two years.

"You win elections by believing something," Bush said, when asked whether his poor poll numbers are hurting GOP candidates. "You win elections by having a plan to protect the American people from terrorist attack. You win elections by having a philosophy that has actually produced results -- economic growth, for example -- or kind of changing the school systems for the better, or providing prescription drug coverage for elders."

Bush ducked questions about a possible U.S. military response to North Korea, and he emphasized that he will continue pursuing diplomatic solutions, even if they prove "slow and cumbersome."

Asked whether he believes the U.S. missile defense system could have intercepted a missile aimed at this country, Bush said: "Yes, I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down. At least that's what the military commanders told me."

Some experts speculate that North Korea is stoking a crisis in hopes of drawing the United States into direct negotiations.

"It's an interesting question: Is he trying to force us to do something by defying the world? If he wants a way forward, it's clear," Bush said of North Korean President Kim Jong Il. "If he wants to have good relations with the world, he's got to verifiably get rid of his weapons programs."

[In Seoul early Saturday, U.S. envoy Christopher Hill rejected North Korea's demand that Washington lift financial measures against the government as a condition for returning to the six-party talks.

"This is not a time for so-called gestures of that kind," Hill said when asked by reporters for reaction to the North Korean demand.]

The White House also is working to forge a diplomatic consensus against Iran, which is pursuing its own nuclear program. Bush said next week's meeting of the Group of Eight leaders in St. Petersburg, Russia, will be an opportunity to send a clear message as Iran considers an incentive package aimed at curtailing its nuclear program.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company