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U.S.: North Korea Tops Agenda As South Korean President Meets Bush

  • Jeremy Bransten

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who arrived on his first trip to the United States this weekend, is due to hold talks with U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House tomorrow. On the agenda will be North Korea and how best to de-escalate tensions with Pyongyang. RFE/RL asked two experts what each side hopes to accomplish and whether the Roh-Bush meeting is likely to be more about style or substance.

Prague, 13 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Following last month's inconclusive three-way talks on North Korea in Beijing, tomorrow's bilateral summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and newly elected South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun will be closely watched for any signs of progress on the North Korea issue.

Although no major agreement is expected to emerge from the talks, analysts say the Bush-Roh meeting will be important in setting the direction of discussions in the months ahead.

This is Roh Moo-hyun's first visit to the United States and the first face-to-face meeting between the two leaders since Roh assumed office in February.

Although South Korea is one of the United States' closest allies in Asia, relations between Seoul and Washington have been strained recently. Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, advocated a "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation with North Korea that found little understanding within the Bush administration. His visit to Washington at the start of 2001 was widely seen as unsuccessful in bridging differences.

Roh's electoral campaign late last year was marred by almost daily anti-American demonstrations in South Korea, and Roh's suggestion that Washington should contemplate cutting its 37,000-strong military presence on the peninsula did little to improve ties.

But since then, a sharp escalation in rhetoric from Pyongyang, culminating in North Korea's claim to possess nuclear weapons, has brought South Korea and the United States closer together. Anti-American demonstrations have died down, Seoul took pains to publicly support the United States in its war in Iraq, and when some in the Bush administration recently suggested removing part of the U.S. military contingent from South Korea, Roh aides were quick to urge a rethink.

The fact that Roh Moo-hyun is making his first official visit abroad to the United States is another signal that Seoul wants to mend fences. To this end, Patrick Koellner, an expert on Korea at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Asian Affairs, said the summit is, above all, a chance for the South Korean leader to repackage himself in U.S. eyes.

"Roh Moo-hyun will certainly try to emphasize that he is indeed a pragmatic politician and that the perceptions which have existed in the United States -- some people tried to paint him as a leftist -- that these kinds of assumptions are certainly not well-founded," Koellner said.

Roh's other principal goal will be to convince the Bush administration to stick to negotiations with North Korea and eschew the path of sanctions or preemptive military action. "The main aim is really trying to induce the United States government to continue this process of dialogue and negotiation with North Korea. That has to remain the primary aim of South Korea. All other scenarios are simply not acceptable for the South," Koellner said.

Robert Ward, a Korea expert at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, said that although the Bush administration is perceived as more hawkish than the South Koreans when it comes to North Korea, Washington knows any resolution to the current crisis with Pyongyang will have to be coordinated with South Korea and other neighboring countries, if it is to work.

"South Korea has to be on board when we're talking about North Korea. South Korea has the most pressing interest in what goes on in North Korea -- far more than the U.S., arguably far more than any of the other parties. South Korea absolutely must be on board and be party to any settlement that is reached with North Korea internationally. The same also applies to Japan, of course, because Japan would be the one that would have to bankroll any reunification or any problems, any sort of collapse in the North Korean state," Ward told RFE/RL.

Although Seoul has muted any talk of America withdrawing its forces from the region, the issue is likely to come up during tomorrow's talks -- paradoxically, at Washington's insistence. U.S. military planners have spoken in recent weeks of pulling back the bulk of U.S. forces from their frontline positions on the border with North Korea -- something South Korea is reluctant to contemplate.

Patrick Koellner explained: "The big question really is whether the United States' troops -- or most of them -- will be stationed close to the border, as they are right now. It has been argued that American troops are sort of in a hostage situation, because if the North strikes in some sort of combat situation, it would be United States troops which would be affected first. And that would limit the options of American military planners. So we'll see if there are some negotiations on whether American troops will not be pulled out of South Korea, but will be pulled further back."

That, in sum, is what will be keeping both sides busy tomorrow. With expectations low, and Roh eager to win friends in Washington -- analysts are cautiously optimistic that this summit will be an improvement on the frosty meeting that took place at the start of 2001 between Bush and Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung -- at least on style, if not immediate substance.

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