SANTIAGO, Chile – President Bush, trying to build international pressure on North Korea (search) to return to high-stakes nuclear talks, won support from China on Friday for a tough U.S. approach.
"I believe you can never push too hard for a good purpose," said Kong Quan, chief spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. He said the biggest barrier was "the extreme, mutual distrust" between Washington and Pyongyang (search).
No time frame has been set for the resumption of negotiations, Quan said. The United States is pushing for early next year.
Bush, who arrived here Friday night, will talk on Saturday with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea and Russia, his partners in negotiations to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons (search) program. After three rounds of inconclusive talks, North Korea refused to attend a scheduled fourth session in September, reportedly because it wanted to see who would win the U.S. presidential election.
The North Korea discussions will take place on the sidelines of the annual 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (search) summit, a group whose far-flung membership ranges from Asia to New Zealand to the Americas. Thousands of demonstrators marched through downtown Santiago Friday in protest of the summit, the presence of Bush and the war in Iraq.
In the 21-nation summit, Bush hopes to build on last year's pledges from regional leaders to intensify their crackdown on terror groups and curb the spread of unconventional weapons. Freer trade and less government corruption also will get attention at Bush's meetings.
North Korea, along with Iran and prewar Iraq, is part of what Bush has called an "axis of evil." North Korea has accused Washington of having a hostile policy and says it wants economic aid and U.S. guarantees of nonaggression in return for giving up its nuclear program. Bush has maintained a no-concessions strategy for the resumption of talks.
Iran's nuclear ambitions also are a matter of heightened concern and will be a subject of Bush's conversations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and others, National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said. Facing a Monday deadline to stop all work related to uranium enrichment, Iran is racing to convert tons of ore into a dual-use gas that could then be processed to make nuclear weapons, diplomats told The Associated Press in Vienna, Austria.
On North Korea, Bush is looking to his four partners in the talks to reinforce their demand for a nuclear-free peninsula and a resumption of disarmament talks.
"I think our focus again is going to be on convening a new round of six-party talks," said McCormack. "All the five parties are on board with that idea — actively support moving forward." He said there was no word from North Korea about returning.
China and South Korea have expressed reservations about the talks or the direction of U.S. foreign policy. While supporting the U.S.-led war on terror, China worries about Washington's heightened presence in Central and South Asia, concerned that it threatens Chinese ambitions to be the region's undisputed military power.
South Korea, meanwhile, is intent on continued engagement with the North and is nervous about U.S. pressure on the Pyongyang government.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, speaking in Los Angles this month, warned that "a hard-line policy will have very grave repercussions and implications for the Korean peninsula." Still, he said the world should not tolerate the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea.
But the U.S. goal is to minimize talk of those issues and project a united front on efforts to draw North Korea back to the negotiating table, said a senior White House official, on condition of anonymity. The White House sees the gathering of all four of its partners in one place — especially coming so soon after Bush won re-election — as a key opportunity, the official said.
Plotting strategy for those meetings with his national security advisers took up a large chunk of Bush's time on the long flight to Chile, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.