CAMP DAVID, Md. – President George W. Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Saturday that there still is a chance to make progress on eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, urging critics to see what Pyongyang says in a required declaration before deciding whether nations are being too lenient.
"We need persistent patience, ladies and gentlemen," Lee said, side-by-side with Bush here at the presidential retreat where the two leaders met for two days of talks. "It's difficult to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programs, but it is not impossible."
Nuclear talks between North Korea and five other nations, including the United States and South Korea, are stalled over whether Pyongyang will hand over a promised full declaration of its nuclear programs — its uranium enrichment program as well as alleged proliferation activities — in return for concessions. The North made unprecedented progress last year, including closing its working plutonium reactor, but work slowed in a dispute over how much the North had to reveal in the declaration, due in December.
The Bush administration apparently has decided that the declaration's exact contents are less important than an assurance that the nuclear negotiators can check up on Kim Jong Il's government to make sure it has told the truth. The administration is arguing that although it has scaled back its demands about what the North must admit about its nuclear past, it will still get the information it wants, along with new ways to make sure Pyongyang isn't cheating.
But Bush critics, especially in the right wing of the Republican Party, claim the president is lowering the bar for the nation he once included in his so-called "axis of evil." They claim Bush appears more interested in striking a deal with Pyongyang before he leaves office than making North Korea honor its pledge.
"Why don't we just wait and see what they say before people go out there and start giving their opinions about whether this is a good deal or a bad deal?" Bush said.
In his comments defending his administration's approach, the president stressed the importance of establishing effective ways to verify whatever North Korea says.
"The burden of proof is theirs," he said. "We and our partners will take a look at North Korea's full declaration to determine whether or not, you know, the activities they promised they could do can be verified and then we'll make a judgment of our own."
He added: "Obviously, I'm not going to accept a deal that doesn't advance the interests of the region. ... But some people are precluding, you know, jumping ahead of the game."