President Bush and his South Korean counterpart presented a united front Thursday in pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program without additional concessions, despite calls just a day earlier by South Korea and China for a softer line.
Meeting here in advance of an Asian economic summit, Bush and President Roh Moo Hyun staked out an uncompromising stand toward North Korea and labored to play down differences of opinion about strategy. Bush again flatly rejected North Korea's demand to help it build a light-water civilian nuclear reactor until it has dismantled its entire nuclear weapons program.
"We'll consider the light-water reactor at the appropriate time," Bush said. "The appropriate time is after they have verifiably given up their nuclear weapons and/or programs."
Roh said the two leaders agreed "that a nuclear-armed North Korea will not be tolerated" and added that "we have no disagreement at all that this issue must be resolved."
The public show of harmony came a day after Roh emerged from a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao with a joint declaration urging negotiators at nuclear arms talks to show "sincere flexibility" toward the government of North Korea. The Chinese-South Korean position appeared to further distance the two from the approach adopted by the United States and Japan drawing a hard line against the North, a schism complicating Bush's attempt to promote solidarity during his week-long, four-nation Asian trip.
But after a lengthy discussion with Bush focusing heavily on how to handle North Korea, Roh did not repeat that formulation when the two leaders appeared before reporters here in this thousand-year-old capital of old Korea. Bush plans to press Hu and Russian President Vladimir Putin to stand behind his position as well during separate meetings in the next few days.
More than two years of slow-moving, six-party negotiations yielded a statement of principles in September in which North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program while the five other nations agreed to provide economic incentives. But the pact has foundered on differing interpretations of what it actually means. The North Korean government has insisted on help to build the long-sought light-water reactor to produce electricity before it gives up its weapons program, while the Bush administration maintains that North Korea must disarm completely before a reactor can even be discussed.
Follow-up talks intended to begin translating the vaguely worded September agreement into a concrete plan broke up last week without so much as a consensus on when they would resume. And while U.S. officials once hoped the negotiations would reconvene shortly after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit to be held in nearby Pusan this week, Asian officials indicated that talks would not resume until January at the earliest.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged that the latest talks had failed to make expected progress. "And so we've redoubled our efforts with all the other parties to go back to the North Koreans," she told reporters after arriving in South Korea on Wednesday to join Bush at the APEC summit.
Rice said North Korea needed to show a "different attitude" to turn the disarmament agreement into reality. "The jury is out on whether the North Koreans are . . . prepared to do what they need to do, which is to get serious about dismantlement and verification obligations that they undertook in that framework agreement," Rice said. But she portrayed the United States and its partners in the talks as unified. "Essentially, we are all on the same page."
Michael J. Green, the president's top Asia adviser at the National Security Council, said the different rhetorical approaches among the nations this week were understandable. "The tone is different sometimes because, of course, for the people of the Republic of Korea, the demilitarized zone is right at their doorstep," Green told reporters aboard Air Force One, referring to South Korea by its official name. "Seoul is as close to the DMZ and North Korean artillery as the White House is to Dulles Airport. So it's very much a clear and present threat for the people of the Republic of Korea."
After their meeting Wednesday, Roh and Hu issued a statement declaring that they "shared the view that each party to the six-party talks should show sincere flexibility on its position, and implement the statement in order to ensure continued progress in the talks."
The joint declaration reflected a move by South Korea to build closer ties with China, a move that leaves U.S. officials and some Korean officials nervous. The two sides agreed to deepen military and security dialogues, establish a hotline between their foreign ministers and hold regular meetings between vice foreign ministers.
According to Roh's critics, however, that agreement may come at the expense of ties between South Korea and its traditional key ally, the United States. South Korea has dispatched 3,000 troops to Iraq to aid U.S. efforts there, the third-highest presence on the ground. But conservatives in South Korea fear that the U.S. government and Japan are moving closer together as South Korea's relationship with the U.S. government becomes more strained.
Bush and Roh moved to dispel such an impression on Thursday, calling the U.S.-South Korean relationship as strong as ever. To demonstrate that, Bush announced that Washington would work with Seoul to develop a visa waiver program, and the two agreed to launch a "strategic dialogue" to discuss mutual issues starting after the new year.
Faiola reported from Kyoto.