SEOUL, South Korea – President Bush said Wednesday that North Korea has much to do before the U.S. can remove it from the terror blacklist, but expressed hope that its pariah status as a member of the "axis of evil" could some day be a thing of the past.
Pyongyang expects Bush to remove it from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring countries as soon as next weekend, as promised when the North blew up its nuclear reactor cooling tower in June. But Bush, speaking at a news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, said North Korea must first agree to international terms for verifying its dismantlement efforts.
"I don't know whether or not they're going to give up their weapons," Bush said. "I really don't know. I don't think either of us knows."
Lee called North Korea "a very difficult opponent."
But, he added: "I have faith we will be able to move to the verification process, then to the next step."
The North, which exploded a nuclear device in 2006, is believed by experts to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium to make as many as 10 nuclear bombs, and the U.S. has accused Pyongyang of running a second weapons program based on uranium. Actual destruction of weapons — the ultimate goal of the six-party talks with North Korea that include the U.S. and South Korea — is months away at least.
Bush once branded North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," along with prewar Iraq and Iran, and spoke derisively of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's treatment of his people and pursuit of nuclear weapons. The president said it is still "to be determined" whether Pyongyang can come off.
"The human rights abuses inside the country still exist and persist. The North Korea leader has yet to fully verify the extent to which he has had a highly enriched uranium program. There's still more steps to be done on the plutonium program," Bush said. "In order to get off the list, the axis of evil list, the North Korean leader is going to have to make certain decisions."
Still, he said he hoped to see all that come to pass.
"My hope is that the axis of evil list no longer exists," Bush said.
He had tougher words for the isolated, Stalinist regime later while speaking to U.S. troops at Yongsan Garrison, the headquarters of U.S. forces in Korea. "North Korea traps its people in misery and isolation," he said.
Bush's three-nation Asian trip — his ninth — will take him to Thailand later Wednesday, and then on to China for the Olympic Games. With widespread talk of China's repression of freedoms for its citizens leading into its hosting of the games, Bush pointedly called such policies by the communist regime "a mistake."
He said he tells Chinese leaders this every time he has met with him over the nearly eight years of his presidency.
"You ought to welcome people being able to express their minds," Bush said, describing his message. "To the extent that people aren't able to do that, people aren't able to worship freely is — you know — I think is a mistake."
Bush's South Korean visit provided a contrast, as he was greeted by both supporters and rowdy protesters, a divide reflecting this year's volatile moments in the U.S.-South Korean relationship.
"I enjoy coming to a free society where people are able to express their opinions — and your country is a free society," Bush told Lee.
As Bush arrived on Tuesday evening, 30,000 people held an outdoor Christian prayer service to support him. His motorcade sped by pockets of people smiling and waving U.S. flags.
Later, an estimated 20,000 anti-Bush protesters gathered downtown. Riot police blasted them with water cannons as they tried to march onto the main boulevard. The National Police Agency said they arrested 167 people involved in protests in central Seoul overnight.
"I don't have anti-U.S. sentiment. I'm just anti-Bush and anti-Lee Myung-bak," said Uhm Ki-woong, 36, a businessman who was wearing a mask and hat like other demonstrators in an apparent attempt to conceal his identity from authorities.
Lee, a pro-American leader who soared into office in February with the nickname of "The Bulldozer," has seen his approval ratings tumble after lifting a ban on U.S. beef imports despite public fears about its safety. His move deeply angered his people, who saw it as an attempt to curry favor with Washington and took to the streets in protests that drew attention worldwide. Lee later apologized, accepted changes in the beef policy and sacked some key advisers.
But White House officials note that U.S. beef has begun appearing again on the South Korean market and is selling. In fact, Bush, first lady Laura Bush and their daughter, Barbara, were treated to a lunch at Lee's presidential mansion that included U.S. beef.
Another test in the relationship is a trade deal Bush's administration negotiated with South Korea, but which has been buried by Congress. Bush promised Lee — again — that he "will press hard for what I think is a very fair agreement."
Despite the protests and problems, the partnership is an increasingly prominent one that both nations need.
The United States has quietly maintained a long-term troop presence in South Korea, now numbered at almost 30,000, since intervening in the 1950-1953 Korean War.
In his remarks to hundreds of U.S., Korean and other U.N. command troops inside a hot recreation hall at Yongsan, Bush noted that the U.S was in the midst of turning over more responsibility to South Korea's military. This will allow U.S. troops to relocate off the peninsula and "leave this valuable land to the Korean people," he said.
During their news conference, Lee was asked whether Bush had asked Seoul to send more troops to Afghanistan, where violence is on the rise and the fight against a resurgent Taliban is growing tougher. The South Korean president said: "There was no such discussion." But Bush said he asked Lee to consider sending "as much noncombat help as possible," apparently drawing a distinction between seeking troops and asking for other help in Afghanistan from South Korea.
South Korea ended a five-year deployment of army medics and engineers to Afghanistan last year. It had planned the withdrawal, but reconfirmed that pledge to the Taliban to win the freedom of 21 kidnapped South Korean civilians in July 2007 after the insurgents killed two hostages.
Bush gave a public boost to Seoul's push for North Korea to cooperate in its investigation of the July 11 shooting of a 53-year-old South Korean housewife killed while vacationing at the North's Diamond Mountain resort. "I strongly support your government's request to investigate last month's shooting of a South Korean tourist," Bush said.