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Amity, Unity Mark S. Korean Leader's Visit

Bush and Roh Moo Hyun avow personal compatibility and political accord on issues such as the North's nuclear program.

May 15, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, meeting for the first time Wednesday, agreed a peaceful solution that would prevent North Korea from having nuclear weapons could be achieved.

In a concession to Washington, Roh did not ask Bush to rule out the use of military force against North Korea, a senior U.S. official said. But Bush made clear he understands that war on the Korean peninsula would be "a calamity," the official said. And the American president promised that the U.S. military presence in South Korea would be readjusted in a way that strengthened South Korean security while easing political tensions.

Both leaders were keen to project the appearance of a solid U.S.-South Korean alliance, a congenial personal relationship and a convergence of views on the future of the 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea and dealings with the volatile North Korean regime.

The Bush administration was anxious not to repeat the chilly visit of former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung to Washington in early 2001. Roh's team was anxious to dispel any perceptions that he is anti-American.

Contrary to the predictions of the South Korean media -- one newspaper said the U.S. and South Korea were "headed for a quickie divorce" -- both goals appear to have been achieved.

It was the first visit to the United States for Roh, a largely self-educated lawyer who sprang from South Korea's labor movement and who has compared himself to Abraham Lincoln. Knowing of Roh's avid interest in Lincoln, Bush gave his South Korean visitor a tour of the Lincoln Bedroom, showed him the Gettysburg Address, and pointed out a painting of Lincoln planning the reunification of the North and South after the Civil War, a piece of American history with echoes for the bitterly divided Korean peninsula.

Meeting with reporters in the White House Rose Garden, Bush referred to Roh as "our good friend" and pronounced him "an easy man to talk to." Roh said he left home with "both concerns and hopes in my mind" but after meeting with Bush, "I have gotten rid of all my concerns and now I return to Korea only with hopes in my mind."

The leaders agreed that U.S. forces in South Korea would be moved out of the Yongsan garrison in Seoul "at an early date" and that other forces now scattered around the country would be consolidated in regional hubs. The idea is to modernize the forces while reducing the irritant to the local population. But Bush promised the moves would be done in close consultation with the South Korean government.

A Gap to Bridge

Behind their bonhomie, the leaders came to the meeting with sharp differences on how to deal with Pyongyang. Roh has long argued that North Korea must be gently coaxed with incentives into giving up its nuclear weapons program and that any threats by the Bush administration of military action would be counterproductive. Bush is said to favor another round of diplomatic talks -- but is in no rush to get to the bargaining table.

A joint statement said the two leaders "stressed that escalatory moves by North Korea will only lead to its greater isolation and a more desperate situation in the North.... While noting that increased threats to peace and stability on the peninsula would require consideration of further steps, they expressed confidence that a peaceful resolution can be achieved."

"Further steps" is a deliberately vague term meaning that "the two presidents trust each other and are willing to talk about whatever steps are needed," the senior U.S. official said. Roh understands that the threat of U.S. military force against North Korea, even if it is never explicit, is helpful in achieving a diplomatic solution, the official said. But North Korea's vulnerability is its dependence on the outside world for food, fuel and aid, and real leverage comes from the threat of a coordinated sanctions campaign by its neighbors.

"Talk of the military option they thrive on," the official said. "Isolation is what they are afraid of."

Until Wednesday, Roh had insisted that he wanted the military option taken off the table, and many of his supporters had railed against Bush administration hard-liners who they feared could drag South Korea into war.

"We believe we can manage North Korea if we are patient. Bush would prefer to see a regime change," said Yoo Jay Kun, a South Korean assemblyman who has been closely allied with Roh. "But we are allies and we have to work to narrow the gap."

With North Korea showing every sign of intending to escalate the confrontation, even some of the administration's doves are losing hope that Pyongyang can be persuaded to give up its nuclear program on terms acceptable to the U.S.

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