South Korea's new president, Roh Moo Hyun, said today he believes North Korea is "petrified" by the American success in overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but he disputed the contention of some U.S. officials that North Korea already has a nuclear weapon.
The former human rights lawyer said in an interview that despite concerns in Washington that he wants to chart a course of independence during a nuclear weapons crisis with North Korea, "there will be no change in the fact that the United States will remain our closest and most important ally."
Roh spoke with Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham and Post reporters at the presidential offices known as the Blue House, a day after announcing that he will make his first visit to the United States next month and meet with President Bush.
Six weeks into his presidency, Roh outlined hopes that the trip will allay suspicions within the Bush administration over his past criticisms of U.S. policy and help the two allies pursue a common strategy in dealing with North Korea, which has said that the United States intends to attack it after the Iraq war is finished.
Roh insisted that there were in fact few differences between his government's policy toward the North and that of the United States, which has demanded that the communist state agree to scrap its nuclear program before talks can begin.
The South Korean president said Bush's decision to wage war in Iraq was "well-made." And he defended his own decision to send about 700 noncombatant South Korean troops to Iraq, despite overwhelming public opposition to the war, casting it as a way to cement the strategic alliance with the United States.
Roh, 56, was inaugurated for a five-year term Feb. 25 after an election campaign in which he advocated closer ties with North Korea and more "balance" in relations with the United States. A tide of anger at the United States and statements by some Roh supporters that the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea should go home made some Washington officials wary of the new president.
U.S. officials also perceived differences with Roh over how to deal with the North following the disclosure last year that the Pyongyang government was seeking machines to process spent uranium into material that could be used in nuclear weapons.
Today Roh said he believed the nuclear dispute would be resolved peacefully. He said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was at a crossroads. "Both roads are dangerous and tough for him. But one is dead-ended and one is open-ended."
According to Roh, the open-ended road would require Kim to renounce his "nuclear and missile ambitions" in return for "security guarantees and aid from the United States, South Korea and neighboring countries."
Although Kim sometimes has made decisions that were "beyond our common-sense understanding," Roh said he thought the North Korean leader is "wise enough to chose the open-ended road."
Roh said Kim was threatening to develop nuclear weapons because he had "no other bargaining chips . . . Without this bargaining chip, Kim Jong Il does not have any other means of convincing his people that they are safe."
While Roh agreed that "North Korea's nuclearization" must not be allowed, he questioned U.S. assertions that the country may already have such weapons. "I don't think it is well-grounded information," he said. "There is no clear evidence they have nuclear weapons."
Roh said the dispute should be resolved through diplomacy, despite North Korea's previous violations of agreements to give up its nuclear programs. Roh stressed the similarity between his thinking and the Bush administration policy that insists not only on upfront cancellation of North Korea's nuclear program, but also the involvement of other countries in subsequent negotiations.
"There was a common perception that there were disagreements between me and the United States government," the president said. "But today, there's nothing different in what President Bush is saying about North Korean policy, or what Secretary [of State Colin L.] Powell or other responsible members of the U.S. government are saying about North Korean policy, and what we are saying."
Roh did, however, admit to "one single" difference, concerning the U.S. refusal to rule out an attack on North Korea. "Strategically, it's natural for the United States to take this approach, and I fully understand its position," he said. "But the reason I cannot say I agree with it in public is because it would become an unstable factor for the Korean economy."
He expressed similar understanding of the North's fear of the United States. "They have experienced the Korean War" of 1950-53, in which their country faced the United States on the battlefield, he noted. And the United States' "strong military presence in northeast Asia" still scares North Korea.
"And furthermore, in 2001, there was mention of preemptive strikes against North Korea," he said. "The United States has named North Korea as one of the axis of evil, and has even mentioned the possibility of a nuclear attack against North Korea. So I think North Korea can't help but to feel very nervous and afraid. Especially watching the recent Iraqi war I'm sure they are very much terrified . . . petrified by the Iraqi war."
A 2001 study by the Pentagon and the Energy Department contemplated developing new low-yield nuclear weapons to destroy underground facilities, citing the extensive tunnels of North Korea's military as one potential target.
Roh has promised to extend the goodwill policy of his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, toward North Korea, and has embraced the national mantra of eventual unification of the Korean Peninsula. But he acknowledged that South Korea was wary of a rapid reunification, which would be a serious drain on the South Korean economy. He defended his reluctance to press North Korea on human rights, despite his reputation as a human rights advocate.
"Ultimately, in order to secure the most protection for the most number of people in North Korea, the best method is to open up the Kim Jong Il regime and persuade. Rather than confronting or opposing them politically, it is better to have dialogue with the regime to fundamentally solve this problem. I think this will ultimately bring broader protection of human rights for North Korean people as a whole."
"As was the case with Iraq, I don't think the North Korean human rights conditions can be changed from pressure coming from international public opinion," he said. "If I mention the North Korean human rights situation, it will not help to improve the human rights conditions in North Korea."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.