President Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin pledged today to work together to pressure North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, but the Chinese leader stopped short of the statement of condemnation the administration eventually wants.
Both presidents said after a four-hour meeting at Bush's ranch here they will cooperate on a diplomatic solution to the crisis triggered by North Korean officials' admission early this month that they are working to develop a nuclear bomb. Bush administration officials later made it clear they expect many months of negotiations and said China had not agreed to play as forceful a role as they had hoped.
At a joint news conference following a luncheon, Jiang said China remains a "supporter of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula."
"I agree with President Bush that we will continue to consult on this issue and work together to ensure a peaceful resolution of the problem," Jiang said. When asked if he viewed North Korea's weapons program as a threat to his country, Jiang repeated his earlier words.
Bush, reflecting the reserved strategy he has chosen for responding to Pyongyang in contrast to his saber-rattling against Iraq, said his goal is to "hold North Korea to account in terms of disarming." He said he is at the preliminary stage of reminding friends and allies of the dangers of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
"We agreed that peace and stability in Northeast Asia must be maintained," Bush said.
The presidents met several hours after North Korea issued a strident statement of conditions for resolving its dispute with Washington, saying the U.S. must recognize its sovereignty, assure it of non-aggression and promise not to interfere with its sovereignty. North Korea's U.N. ambassador, Pak Gil Yon, told reporters that Pyongyang is entitled to produce nuclear weapons and develop even more powerful weapons to defend itself from a U.S. attack. "We are a small nation, we have the right to defend our sovereignty and our right to existence," he said in a rare press conference at U.N. headquarters. "My country is entitled to possess such weapons."
The third meeting for Bush and Jiang had been planned as a farewell; Jiang is scheduled to give up most of his titles and power in coming months. White House officials said the two showed a comfort with each other that no one could have imagined at the beginning of Bush's term, when China detained the crew of a U.S. surveillance plane for 11 days. Nonetheless, Bush looked impatiently at his watch as he and first lady Laura Bush waited for Jiang and his wife Wang Yeping, who were 30 minutes late. Jiang's motorcade took a back road to avoid demonstrators protesting Beijing's crackdown on the Falun Gong movement.
Bush announced that Vice President Cheney, who represents an influential wing of administration thinking that is skeptical of deep engagement with China, will visit Beijing in late spring. A senior administration official said that although the White House would love to make that "a back-patting session" after North Korea had agreed to back off its weapons program, the situation might well remain unresolved during Cheney's trip.
White House officials said the administration is prepared to increase contacts between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, which have been essentially cut off since the surveillance plane incident. The officials also unveiled plans to begin regular consultations on curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.
One senior U.S. official said the administration hopes that despite Jiang's tepid public statements, China will exert "back-door pressure" on North Korea. Another official said China may hold the key to whether a confrontation with North Korea can be avoided. "Obviously, we're the ogre" in North Korea's view, the official said. "China is the good cop." The vagueness of today's talks with Jiang served Washington's interests, in one sense. Officials said Bush wants his administration and its allies to remain focused on ousting Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, and he has no desire to provoke an immediate confrontation with North Korea.
A senior U.S. official said at a briefing that the presidents did not discuss economic pressure that China might exert on Pyongyang. The official said the conversation centered on the desire to mobilize international opinion against what North Korea has done. "We did not discuss specific next steps," the official said.
Bush, who travels Saturday to the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, will hold trilateral talks with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. A senior administration official in Washington said the White House has drafted a statement it hopes the other two will agree to, adopting a hard line toward Pyongyang. Both governments have publicly supported ongoing dialogue between the United States and North Korea in the wake of Pyongyang's disclosure of its nuclear weapons program.
Meanwhile, the senior U.S. official disputed statements made by a State Department official yesterday in Los Cabos following a meeting there between Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung Hong. The State Department official said the administration had not yet decided what to do about Pyongyang's admission, and in particular whether to declare dead the 1994 Agreed Framework between North Korea and the United States. That official said some parts of the accord, under which North Korea agreed to end its nuclear program in exchange for economic assistance, might be preserved.
The official in Washington said those statements were a "serious breach" in official policy that represented "a State Department in revolt" over this and other issues.
"There is a discipline problem here, whether it's the person who did the [Mexico] briefing, or somewhere else in the State Department," the Washington official said."What that person said . . . may represent his view, the State Department view, but it does not represent the administration view."
DeYoung reported from Los Cabos, Mexico. Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Peter Slevin in Washington, and Colum Lynch at the United Nations, contributed to this report.