WASHINGTON—South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and President Bush will try to downplay the strains between their countries over how to deal with the North Korean nuclear standoff when they meet Thursday at the White House.
The White House is pushing a hard line in trying to get the strident North Korean government to return to six-party talks designed to halt its nuclear program. South Korea, which has sought to engage North Korea since 1998, is seeking a softer diplomatic approach toward its reclusive communist neighbor.
The United Nations Security Council has approved a resolution condemning North Korea for conducting ballistic missile tests in July that bans any deals with the Pyongyang government that might help its arms trade. The Bush administration wants that policy applied firmly, while South Korea is wary of being too confrontational.
To complicate Thursday's meeting further, it comes amid reports that North Korea is preparing for an underground nuclear test, which some U.S. intelligence officials think may come before the end of the year.
"The expectations of a significant breakthrough between the U.S. and ROK (Republic of Korea) are not there," said Michael Green, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a center-right research center. He was Bush's senior adviser on Asia until last December. "In general, the South Koreans would like the U.S. to be more accommodating to the North."
North Korea walked away last November from talks with the United States, Japan, China, Russia and the European Union, partially citing American restrictions imposed on a Macau-based bank accused of laundering money, counterfeiting and other illicit activities for Pyongyang.
Worried that the restrictions could prompt North Korean President Kim Jong Il to take desperate measures, South Korean officials would like the Bush administration to talk to the North Koreans about the counterfeiting issue as a prelude to resuming the six-party talks, according to Donald G. Gross, a State Department adviser during the Clinton administration.
Not wanting to be seen as rewarding bad behavior, White House officials said Wednesday that they had no intention of lifting the restrictions.
"Look, the United States has worked with its allies and made clear to the North Koreans that they have obligations," White House press secretary Tony Snow said. "We have said, `You need to get back to the table.' There are incentives awaiting the government if it behaves well. That remains the proper approach, and it also remains a proper approach to say to those in the neighborhood, `You're closest; you have the most influence. You need to step up as well.'''
That was a veiled reference to China primarily.
Bush and Roh are also likely to touch on a proposal, controversial in South Korea, whereby Seoul would take over wartime command of its troops from the United States. It surrendered command of its troops to U.S.-led U.N. forces during the Korean War. It regained peacetime control of its troops in 1994.
Roh has pushed for the move, saying the time has come for South Korea to defend itself. But his nation's political conservatives, veterans and Christian activists oppose the proposal, saying it would erode American-South Korean relations and weaken the country's defense capabilities as tensions with North Korea escalate.
Roh calls for transferring military authority by 2012. U.S. officials said the handoff could be done by 2009, a counterproposal that some analysts construed as another sign of strain between Washington and Seoul.
Gross and other Asia analysts predict that Bush and Roh will attempt to gloss over their differences. For example, American and South Korean officials agreed not to issue a joint statement after Thursday's meeting. Such statements are common practice after two leaders meet to discuss a wide range of issues.
White House officials said a joint statement would be redundant because Bush and Roh issued one that covered the North Korea nuclear issue after they met in South Korea last November during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative forum.
"A lack of a joint statement shows they want to work around hard issues and focus on areas of agreement," Gross said. "If they had a joint statement, they'd have to talk about North Korea."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map