South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun will press President Bush in a meeting in Washington on Friday to reaffirm the United States' commitment to a diplomatic resolution of the North Korean nuclear standoff, according to South Korean officials familiar with Roh's plans. Roh intends to underscore Seoul's position that any military option is "unacceptable."
In exchange, Roh will offer assurances that South Korea will support sharper U.S. measures to get the North to return to stalled international disarmament talks if "the diplomatic path becomes clearly exhausted."
Such measures could include support for referring North Korea to the U.N. Security Council, a move that South Korea has so far privately opposed.
"If we try every diplomatic path possible and nothing works, we are prepared to support anything up to the point of a military response," said a South Korean source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We will tell the Americans that."
The main purpose of the meeting, officials here said, is to offer a show of unity at a time when relations between South Korea and the United States have become increasingly strained.
To counter any impression of a fissure in an alliance that has been the backbone of South Korean security since the 1950-53 Korean War, diplomats from both nations are eager to put Bush and Roh side by side Friday and have them reiterate a joint commitment to North Korean disarmament.
Yet the two countries, which are joined in the disarmament talks by China, Japan and Russia in addition to North Korea, remain divided over how to deal with the government in Pyongyang. The disagreement comes at a time when South Korea is embracing its communist neighbor in a broad detente.
Especially at issue are how long diplomacy should be pursued and what to offer the North in exchange for returning to the bargaining table and reaching an accord. North Korea told U.S. officials Monday that it remained "committed" to resuming the talks, on hold for almost a year. South Korean officials, however, expressed doubt Wednesday that new negotiations would begin quickly. Diplomacy, they warned, could be prolonged, perhaps testing Washington's dedication to dialogue.
Roh has advocated offering tangible incentives to the North, including economic and energy aid. The Bush administration has said promising too much too soon would be tantamount to giving in to nuclear blackmail.
Because of those lingering disputes, the two leaders are unlikely to discuss the details of a recent South Korean proposal offering new incentives to North Korea if it agrees to abandon its nuclear weapons, officials said. Rather, after reaffirming basic support for a nuclear-free North Korea, the presidents would leave the specifics of how to achieve that goal to lower-level staff from the two governments.
Roh came to power in 2003, in part because of promises of a new path for South Korea that would be more independent from the United States. Since taking office, he has tried to improve Seoul's relations with Beijing, drawing accusations from the conservative opposition that he is damaging South Korea's special relationship with the United States. The United States keeps about 37,000 troops here but is reducing that number by a third.
In a region where the U.S.-Japan alliance is set off against the growing might of China, Roh recently outlined what he called a new role for South Korea as a "balancer" between the great powers.
Although South Korean officials have since tried to temper Roh's remarks, saying they referred to South Korean unease over rising nationalism in Japan, the comments were nevertheless taken by many people as an indication of Roh's vision for a more autonomous relationship with Washington.
That message has been welcomed by some people here, who note that Washington and Seoul have divergent interests concerning North Korea. The Bush administration is eager to prevent North Korean nuclear proliferation. But South Korea remains reluctant to embrace measures that could lead to sudden collapse of the government of Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader. Such an event could lead millions of destitute refugees to stream across the border, bringing economic disaster for South Koreans.
To promote gradual change in the North, the South is investing heavily there. Roh noted in a speech this week that South Korea would hold cabinet-level talks with the North a week after his meeting with President Bush.
But recent predictions that North Korea may soon conduct a nuclear test explosion have led the South Koreans to join the United States and Japan in issuing stiffer warnings to the North. Roh's mission now, many people here say, will be to show that Seoul is willing to stick by the United States if North Korea keeps stalling.
"Roh needs to clear up the ambiguities that exist about the U.S.-South Korean alliance right now," said Hwang Jin Ha, a legislator from the opposition Grand National Party.