U.S. and S. Korea to Push To Restart Nuclear Talks

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006

President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun agreed yesterday to work together to restart stalled six-party nuclear talks with North Korea, but they skated over their deep differences in how to deal with the isolated Stalinist government in Pyongyang.

Emerging from an Oval Office meeting, Bush stressed the potential benefits to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il if he returns to the negotiating table and ultimately gives up his nuclear weapons. Bush avoided the sort of hard-edged tone that in the past has irritated the South Koreans, who want to take a less confrontational approach.

"First and foremost," Bush said, "the incentive is for Kim Jong Il to understand there is a better way to improve the lives of his people than being isolated -- that stability in the region is in his interests."

But Bush and Roh made no concrete progress on the North Korean stalemate, U.S. officials said, nor did they reach a breakthrough on various other issues that divide them. The two sides have been trying to negotiate a free-trade pact that would be the largest for the United States since the North American Free Trade Agreement a decade ago. They have also been discussing a plan for U.S. commanders to relinquish operational command of South Korean troops during wartime.

U.S.-South Korean ties have grown increasingly strained as Bush and Roh split over the North Korean nuclear issue.

The last time Bush and Roh met, 10 months ago in South Korea, Roh privately grilled Bush on whether the administration was trying to sabotage the six-party North Korea process and his government publicly embarrassed the Americans by leaking plans to withdraw 1,000 troops from Iraq. North Korea has refused since November to return to the talks, which also involve Japan, China and Russia.

In recent weeks, U.S. and South Korean officials have sparred over how to respond to North Korea's summertime missile tests, with Washington pressing for tougher actions and Seoul dismissing the political importance of the episode. Wary of a public spat, the White House decided to minimize the chance of discord at yesterday's meeting by scrapping any joint news statement and limiting the encounter to an hour-long session in the Oval Office followed by a lunch focused on human rights abuses in North Korea.

An administration official said the two leaders came up with "no more specific proposals" on North Korea during the meeting but said the spirit was congenial and constructive. Bush aides were pleased that Roh pledged to enforce U.N. sanctions against North Korea stemming from the missile tests and the South Koreans were pleased that Bush committed to further consultation on the question of wartime military command. At a brief session with reporters, Bush called the relationship "strong and vital."

"Some meetings have been less jovial than others, but this looked like it was better than others and did what they needed to do," said Michael J. Green, a former Asia adviser to Bush now at Georgetown University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on Asia, said the lack of fireworks by itself made it a successful meeting but added that he remains worried about the rift. "Nothing went awry, and that is positive," he said. "There are ups and downs and today is on the more positive side than a year ago. But this is a very serious dilemma."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company