SYDNEY, Australia – President Bush's talks with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun ended on a sour note Friday not over the war in Iraq, but rather the Korean conflict that ended more than five decades ago.
As Bush began to wind down his stay at the Asia-Pacific summit, Roh challenged Bush to make a declaration to end the Korean War. That conflict ended in a truce in 1953, not a peace treaty, so the two sides technically remain at war.
The snag was the first in a series of sit-downs Bush is having here with leaders from Pacific rim nations. He also spoke Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and will meet on Saturday with the leaders of Japan, Indonesia and Australia. Protesters plan a march through the city on Saturday, a day after scuffles broke out between riot police and some demonstrators.
Bush's talks with Roh focused on the six-nation talks to get North Korea to give up its weapons. Soon after the mini diplomatic incident, Christopher Hill, the U.S. envoy handling the negotiations, announced that nuclear experts from the U.S., China and Russia will travel to North Korea next week to survey nuclear facilities to be shut down.
Bush said that during his talks with Roh, he reaffirmed the U.S. position that when North Korean leader Kim Jong Il dismantles his nuclear program, the United States would formally end the Korean War.
Whatever Roh heard Bush say through his translator, it wasn't good enough.
"I think I did not hear President Bush mention the — a declaration to end the Korean War just now," Roh said as cameras clicked and television cameras rolled.
Bush said he thought he was being clear, but obliged Roh and restated the U.S. position.
That wasn't good enough either. "If you could be a little bit clearer in your message," Roh said.
Bush, now looking irritated, replied: "I can't make it any more clear, Mr. President. We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. That will end — will happen when Kim verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons."
The White House immediately downplayed the testy exchange and said the meeting went smoothly.
"There was clearly something lost in translation," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a rushed e-mail to reporters.
"I really think the interpreter must not have conveyed the president's comments entirely clearly," Johndroe said. "The president made clear in his opening remarks that he told Roh that the U.S. is committed to a peace agreement once North Korea complies."
The photo-op began with the usual diplomatic pleasantries.
Bush said he and Roh had a "friendly and frank" discussion. He thanked South Korea for providing support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and spoke optimistically about negotiations that the United States, South Korea, Russia, China and Japan are having to pressure the communist regime to end its nuclear programs.
The president noted Roh's upcoming meeting with the communist leader and urged him to tell Kim that he needs to honor his agreements.
Bush said that in his meeting with Putin, the two leaders talked about missile defense and fishing.
Moscow bitterly opposes a U.S. plan to base an anti-missile radar system in the Czech Republican and interceptor missiles in Poland. Led by Putin, it has reacted forcefully against the idea, saying it would spark a new arms race and a repositioning of its missiles. Putin has proposed instead that Russia and the United States share a Russian-rented radar station in Azerbaijan and that missiles could be deployed at sea or in nations such as Turkey.
At Bush's side, Putin asserted that the leaders had agreed that experts from the two sides should meet again and travel to Azerbaijan. Bush made no comment on this.
"We have once again said that it is necessary that our experts meet again very soon and make another trip to Azerbaijan to the Gabala radio location station," Putin said. "By saying this, we confirm that the process of our joint work on this — in this direction is under way."
Bush chose not to talk specifics at the U.S.-Russia photo-op. Instead, he noted how Putin had recalled his recent stay at Bush's parents home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Putin said they both believe it would be fun to go fishing together in Siberia.
"For a minute, I thought he brought up the Kennebunkport visit to remind me that he was the only one who caught the fish," Bush said.
Earlier in the day, though, Bush took a jab at the rollback of democratic reforms under Putin's leadership.
"We'll continue to work with nations like Russia to advance our shared interests while encouraging Russia's leaders to respect the checks and balances that are essential to democracy," Bush said in a speech to business leaders at the summit.