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US, Seoul Try to Ease Rift on Talks with North
By David E. Sanger
US-Seoul Summit — President Bush and President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea after a meeting Friday at the White House. The men did not seem to make much progress in resuming talks with North Korea about its nuclear program. Photo Courtesy Katie Falkenberg for NYT

WASHINGTON — President Bush and South Korea's president, Roh Moo Hyun, tried Friday (June 10, 2005) to shore up an alliance that has shown strains as Washington and Seoul pursue different strategies to deal with North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Mr. Roh left saying they had brought "closure" to some of their differences, but Mr. Bush's public comments suggested that significant disagreements remained.

Asked by reporters whether he was willing to offer the North "inducements" to return to talks about giving up its nuclear weapons program, Mr. Bush immediately responded, "Yep."

He then explained that he was still waiting for a response to an offer he made a year ago, offering fairly unspecific economic, energy and diplomatic benefits that would be delivered gradually as the North disgorged every element of its large nuclear complex.

North Korea has never responded directly to that offer, and in the past Mr. Roh's aides have urged Mr. Bush to make the timing and terms of his offer clearer. But South Korean officials insisted today that during the Oval Office meeting and a more relaxed lunch in the White House, Mr. Roh did not seek an improved American offer to the North.

The meeting took place at what could be a critical juncture. After boycotting all negotiations for a year, North Korea told American officials on Monday that it was committed to returning to multinational talks about its nuclear program, which were suspended a year ago. But no date has been set, and it is unclear whether the talks will indeed resume.

In the days leading to the meeting on Friday, Mr. Bush's advisers made it clear that the president would offer nothing new to lure the North to the table.

As Mr. Roh was arriving in Washington, one senior White House official involved in preparations said the North "has gotten us to bid against ourselves two or three times." Now, he said, "the question is how long do you let this go without there being a consequence?"

Talk of consequences and timetables for moving to sanctions against North Korea were briefly suggested by a Pentagon official traveling last week with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, before others in the administration quashed public discussion of the idea. It is just that sort of talk that Mr. Roh came here to discourage, his aides have said.

He came seeking assurances that Mr. Bush would not attack the North's nuclear facilities, and he appeared to get them. This afternoon the South Korean foreign minister, Ki Moon Ban, said, "President Bush reaffirmed his firm belief in a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issues."

Yet, while Mr. Bush has said he was seeking a diplomatic solution, he has carefully preserved for himself the leverage of threatening force, saying that "all options" are on the table.

Mr. Bush said in a television interview this week that the North may have one plutonium weapon, though some estimates by the intelligence agencies - which are constantly arguing about the North's capabilities - suggest it may have more. South Korean military officials, however, have recently begun to say publicly that the North may be bluffing, statements that have unsettled some officials in Washington.

Friday's meeting was considered a crucial one by the Bush administration because, as one of Mr. Bush's advisers argued, "the North Koreans have been doing their best to splinter the alliance."

At their joint appearance, Mr. Bush praised South Korea for its aid in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Mr. Roh went out of his way to coax the president into reaffirming an alliance that dates back to before the Korean War.

"How do you feel, Mr. President?" Mr. Roh asked in front of reporters. "Wouldn't you agree that the alliance is strong and — "

Mr. Bush, taking the hint, jumped in and said, "I would say the alliance is very strong, Mr. President."

But there have been tensions, with some South Korean officials saying Mr. Bush, by calling the North's leader, Kim Jong Il, a "tyrant" who keeps his opponents in "concentration camps," has undercut negotiations. So on Friday Mr. Bush was extremely careful.

For the second time in two weeks, for example, he used "Mr." in describing the North Korean leader, aware, no doubt, that North Korea's commentators had welcomed a similar gesture last week. The two men also did not repeat the words that they settled on in May 2003, during Mr. Roh's first visit to the White House. At that time they declared that the two countries "will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea." Scott McClellan, the president's press secretary, called that a "semantic" difference.

Mr. Bush has in the past sidestepped questions about how his vow not to tolerate North Korean nuclear weapons squares with the current estimates that the country possesses one or more.

The above article is from The New York Times.






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