WASHINGTON – President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun (search) pressed North Korea to rejoin deadlocked talks on its nuclear weapons program on Friday and tried to minimize their own differences over how hard to push the reclusive communist regime.
"South Korea and the United States share the same goal, and that is a Korean peninsula without a nuclear weapon," Bush said with Roh at his side in the Oval Office (search).
Roh, whose government has resisted the tougher approach advocated by the Bush administration toward ending the impasse, said he agreed that six-nation talks remain the best way to persuade Pyongyang (search) to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
While Bush emphasized that the two allies "are of one voice" on the issue, Roh, who is presiding over a South Korea newly assertive about its role in the region, raised the issue of remaining differences.
"There are, admittedly, many people who worry about potential discord or cacophony between the two powers of the alliance," he said through a translator.
Roh opposes military action if diplomacy with North Korea fails. South Korea also is cool to the idea of taking the North Korean standoff to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. South Korea instead is pursuing a policy of engagement with the communist North and supports a security guarantee or economic incentives to entice North Korea to return to six-nation talks it has boycotted for nearly a year.
Bush, however, wants South Korea — as well as China — to take a more aggressive stance. The president said Friday he had no new inducements for North Korea beyond those offered last June, when the North was told it could get economic and diplomatic benefits once it had verifiably disarmed. Anything else, in the U.S. view, would amount to a reward for nuclear blackmail.
While insisting the U.S. has no intention of launching a military strike, Bush also has steadfastly refused to take that option off the table. And the administration is increasingly hinting it is closer to pursuing U.N. sanctions.
North Korea, widely believed to have enough weapons-grade plutonium for a half-dozen nuclear bombs, has sent mixed signals on whether it will return to negotiations with the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. North Korean diplomats indicated earlier this week they were willing to come back, but they set no date. A North Korean official later boasted his country was adding to its nuclear stockpile.
With a unified stand the goal of the Bush-Roh meeting, diplomatic language ruled the day.
Bush said five times that Seoul and Washington either "share the same goal" or are speaking with "one voice." Roh said that the "one or two minor issues" between the longtime allies could be worked out "very smoothly."
The South Korean indicated he and Bush were on the same page on "the basic principles."
Roh campaigned in 2002 promising to put South Korea on a more equal footing with the United States, using language some viewed as anti-American.
On North Korea, Roh's moves to engage — by coming out against government change in Pyongyang and sending energy and food aid north — contrast with the U.S. approach.
Bush administration officials have recently aimed harsh rhetoric at Pyongyang, with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld saying North Korea is "a living hell" for all but its elite and Vice President Dick Cheney calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Il "one of the world's most irresponsible leaders."
The South Korean position reflects its strategic interests. A collapse of its communist neighbor could send millions of refugees streaming southward and ravage the South Korean economy. The country also fears a military strike could lead to a devastating second Korean War.
Washington believes the North should be feared, not trusted, as a potential supplier of dangerous weapons worldwide.
South Korea also has talked of boosting military exchanges with China, at a time when Washington has shown concern about Beijing's military buildup. Seoul has joined China in opposing a permanent seat for Japan on the U.N. Security Council — something Washington supports.
And there are skirmishes over the 50-year-old U.S. military presence in South Korea, due to fall by a quarter to about 24,500 troops.
The two countries also just signed an agreement for Seoul to shoulder less of the cost of U.S. military personnel on its soil.
In April, South Korea vetoed plans to grant American command of forces on the Korean Peninsula if the North's government falls.
None of those issues came up publicly.
"How do you feel, Mr. President? Wouldn't you agree that the alliance is strong?" Roh said at the end of his opening statement, apparently startling his host.
"I would say the alliance is very strong, Mr. President," Bush quickly replied.
South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon noted that Bush had reiterated that the U.S. has no intention of invading Pyongyang. He urged North Korea to respond by giving up its nuclear weapons, which he said would be "a wise decision."
"The two leaders reaffirmed ... if North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons program not only it would be possible to receive substantial aid, including security guarantee and energy, but also to have more normal relations with the United States," Ban told reporters.