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Bush, Roh Say They Share Goals

The president meets with South Korea's leader at the White House. They downplay talk of a rift over policy toward North Korea.

June 11, 2005|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun sought Friday to downplay deepening divisions between their governments, declaring themselves fully united in their goals for the Korean peninsula.

Before a White House meeting, Bush said that the two governments "share the same goals," and that "the alliance is very strong." Roh said the two are "in full and perfect agreement."

Both called for a resumption of international talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

Yet in a brief appearance before reporters, Bush and Roh offered no evidence that they had overcome growing differences on how to deal with the North. They avoided any mention of seeking U.N. Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang, a course advocated by some in the Bush administration but opposed by Seoul.

Bush made it clear that U.S. officials were not about to offer more incentives to the North Koreans to cooperate, as the Roh government would like them to do. Responding to a reporter's question, Bush said other nations had offered various incentives to Pyongyang.

"The plan is still there. It's full of inducements," he said.

With six-nation talks stalled for the past year and Pyongyang showing signs of accelerating its nuclear weapons program, some senior administration officials have been pushing for a harder line on North Korea. The Pentagon recently moved stealth fighters into the region and suspended an effort with the North that was aimed at recovering the remains of missing U.S. service members who fought in the Korean War.

Roh's government fears the United States could become too inflexible, and it has been urging American officials to do more to draw Pyongyang back into negotiations.

Some foreign policy specialists in both countries contend that U.S.-South Korean relations are at their lowest point in 50 years, and Roh's conservative opponents are accusing him of harming the alliance.

On Monday, North Korean officials met with U.S. officials in New York to discuss resumption of the talks but have not set a date for negotiations. Some U.S. officials believe that the move may have been intended to preempt any effort to bring Pyongyang before the Security Council.

Roh said that whenever he has met with Bush, "questions abound" regarding U.S.-South Korean differences. He also said there were "admittedly many people who worry about potential discord."

Without naming them, Roh alluded to "one or two minor issues" on which the two countries differed, but he predicted those would be settled. He insisted that Washington and Seoul were "in full and perfect agreement" on basic principles.

Bush said he and Roh were "strategic partners, allies and friends."

He indicated that the six-party talks -- among the U.S., North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia -- remained the center of U.S. strategy.

"Today's meeting should make it clear that South Korea and the United States are of one voice on this very important issue," Bush said.

Bush, who has sometimes used harsh language toward North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, may have been trying to make a gesture to the South by speaking about him more respectfully Friday. Bush referred to Kim as "Mr. Kim Jong Il."

Bush and Roh met in the Oval Office for about 50 minutes, then lunched in the old family dining room of the White House.

The two leaders' public statements appeared less provocative than a joint Bush-Roh statement issued on May 14, 2003, the last time Roh visited the White House. They declared then that they would "not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea."

Asked about the difference, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said no one should "get caught up in all the semantics."

At another point, when asked if the U.S. was seeking "regime change" -- a phrased used by the White House to describe the invasion of Iraq -- McClellan said, "No one has any intention of attacking North Korea."

L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation in Washington, said South Korea sought the meeting because of its concern that U.S. policy could be moving in a more hawkish direction, and to blunt criticism from domestic opponents who favor a strong U.S.-South Korean alliance.

Bush's goal was to show a common front against Pyongyang, Flake said.

But Flake characterized their language as "diplomatic hyperbole" and "bromides" that did not conceal the differences between them.

Balbina Y. Hwang, an Asia specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, hopes the two leaders will begin laying the foundation for a stronger relationship, and she said she saw signs that such a change might take place.

But she added that the brief comments were "pretty wimpy, I guess."

Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.

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