HANOI, Vietnam – President Bush, trying to fortify global pressure on North Korea, on Saturday backed Pacific Rim leaders in demanding that the communist regime abandon its nuclear weapons program, but was met with resistance by South Korea on the issue of intercepting some ships bound for North Korea.
In Hanoi for the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Bush worked to preserve U.S. solidarity with five nations getting ready to restart nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang.
The White House endorsed a statement all 21 Pacific Rim members will issue to express their worries about North Korea's first nuclear test on Oct. 9 and its missile launches in July. "I think we're pleased with that statement and I think it will be a good contribution to the diplomacy," National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters.
But while cheered with the APEC statement against North Korea, Bush failed to win South Korea's support for intercepting ships suspected of carrying supplies possibly bound for North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The president spent the afternoon at the APEC forum, held at a gleaming, massive building that Vietnam constructed especially for the summit in hopes of elevating its global profile. The leaders met again later Saturday for a gala dinner and cultural performance that featured traditional Vietnamese instruments and dancers in colorful silk outfits.
Between meetings, Bush strolled through a red-tiled courtyard at the U.S. military's Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command here, charged with recovering and identifying the remains of Americans killed in action in Vietnam but never brought home.
Making no comment and asking no questions of his guides, Bush peered briefly at photos of recovery teams in the field and tables of recovered items, such as a dented helmet, rusty rifles and even plaster moldings of bones.
With North Korea saying it is ready to resume the talks, Bush was meeting individually with each of the four U.S. partners in the discussions to coordinate strategy: South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun and Japan's Shinzo Abe on Saturday and Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Hu Jintao on Sunday.
The president urged strong enforcement of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, imposed after it tested a nuclear bomb last month, despite Pyongyang's new willingness to reopen six-party negotiations.
Addressing both North Korea and wary allies, Bush said Pyongyang has much to look forward to if it agrees in those talks to give up its nuclear weapons and development of such weapons.
Possible steps include a ceremony to formally declare an end to the Korean War, humanitarian and economic aid, and an end to a U.S. campaign to cut off the North's access to foreign banks. That move, aimed at alleged money laundering and counterfeiting by Pyongyang, caused the North to walk away from the negotiating table last year.
"We want the North Korean leaders to hear that if it gives up its weapons — nuclear weapons ambitions — that we would be willing to enter into security arrangements with the North Koreans, as well as move forward new economic incentives for the North Korean people," the president said after an hourlong meeting with Roh.
Hadley stressed that North Korea must take concrete, unspecified steps on its nuclear program in order for talks to resume.
South Korea is perhaps Washington's toughest sell, with Roh critical of Bush's hard-line approach.
Seoul embraces an engagement policy with its reclusive neighbor, fearing any approach that would irritate North Korea or send refugees to flow over their border. Earlier this week, South Korea said it would remain only an observer of — and not a full participant in — the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, an international ship-inspection program aimed at preventing North Korean weapons trafficking.
The Bush administration wants more aggressive cooperation from South Korea. But after the president and Roh met for more than an hour, the South Korean leader politely showed little sign of budging.
Roh said his country "is not taking part in the full scope" of the security initiative, but that it would "support the principles and goals of the PSI," and would cooperate in preventing the transfer of materiel for weapons of mass destruction in northeast Asia.
Bush pronounced himself satisfied.
"I appreciate the cooperation we're receiving from South Korea," he said.
The White House sought to put Seoul's position in the best light. U.S. officials said Seoul is committed to the goal of preventing any weapons transfers, and expressed sympathy for how politically dicey the issue is within South Korea, where many people feel affinity with the populace in the North.
White House press secretary Tony Snow refused to explain how South Korea would help make sure North Korea is not able to move weapons materials by sea. Hadley suggested it might participate in exercises on the high seas, but must stick to agreements it has made with North Korea covering the waters surrounding the peninsula.
"We don't view this that somehow South Korea has rejected PSI," he said.
As a major supplier of energy and food aid, China has even more influence over Pyongyang than South Korea and also has resisted interdictions or applying strong sanctions. But China, stung by North Korea's defiant test, has shown some support for enforcing the U.N. sanctions and played a leading role in persuading North Korea to return to nuclear negotiations.
Japan, meanwhile, has advocated the toughest approach. Tokyo imposed its own sanctions on North Korea after the test and, with the U.S., led the effort for the U.N. sanctions.
With Washington and Tokyo virtually in lockstep, Bush and Abe said very little about North Korea after an hourlong lunch. The two reiterated what Bush called "our common commitment" to resolve the dispute.
The meeting — followed by three-way talks between Bush, Roh and Abe — was their first since Japan's new prime minister took office two months ago as the successor to Junichiro Koizumi, one of Bush's closest friends on the world stage.
"I admire the prime minister's intellect. I'm very comfortable with his style," Bush said of Abe.