North Korea trade top Bush talks with S. Korean leader

April 19, 2008 6:47:46 PM PDT
President Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Saturday they still expect North Korea to fully declare its nuclear weapons programs and proliferation activities in a way that can be verified. Bush tamped down assertions that the U.S. is going soft on the communist regime so the nuclear standoff can be resolved before he leaves office. After two days of meetings at the Camp David presidential retreat, Bush and Lee urged patience, saying critics need to see what North Korea says in it long-promised declaration before deciding whether the U.S. and its partners are being too lenient.

"Thanks to the six-party framework, North Korea has begun disabling the plutonium production facilities at Yongbyon," Bush said with Lee at his side. "Now North Korea must fulfill its other obligations: Provide a full declaration of its nuclear programs and proliferation activities in a verifiable way."

Lee, a pro-American conservative who took office in February, is the first South Korean president to ever visit the secluded wooded retreat northwest of Washington. Bush's invitation was meant to give the two an informal venue to get acquainted and cement U.S.-South Korea ties, which have been tense in recent years.

Lee has said that repairing relations with the United States is a top priority - that they "lacked trust" under his more liberal predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun. Lee described his conversations with Bush as "open and frank." Bush accepted Lee's offer to visit South Korea this summer.

The two talked about prospects for a free-trade agreement, South Korea's decision to lift its ban on U.S. beef sales, exchange programs and a repositioning of U.S. troops on the peninsula, but North Korea was a key subject of their discussions.

Nuclear talks between North Korea and five other nations, including the United States and South Korea, are stalled over whether Pyongyang will fully declare its uranium enrichment program and alleged proliferation activities - in return for concessions. The initial six-nation agreement did not expressly require the North to detail its proliferation activities, but the issue took on new significance after Israel bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site last fall.

North Korea made unprecedented progress last year, including closing its working plutonium reactor at Yongbyon, but talks slowed in a dispute over how much the North had to reveal in the declaration, which was due in December. The Bush administration has reportedly decided that the declaration's exact contents are less important than an assurance that nuclear negotiators can check to see whether Kim Jong Il's government has told the truth.

"I believe if North Korea's declaration is not satisfactory or if the verification is not satisfactory, we could probably have a temporary achievement, but in the long term, that will cause a lot more serious problems," Lee said.

"North Korea's declaration of their nuclear weapons program should be complete and correct, and verification - I'm not sure how long that is going to take. ... All the parties of the six-party talks are with one mind that the verification process must be full and complete and satisfactory."

In recent weeks, U.S. and North Korean diplomats worked out a deal to get the talks back on track, but its precise terms remain unclear. In general, the North could produce a less detailed public accounting of deals it may have made to spread nuclear technology or expertise to Syria or other nations, and an alleged secret program to develop weapons from highly enriched uranium.

Bush critics, especially in the right wing of the Republican Party, claim the president is lowering the bar for the nation he 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.

John Bolton, the conservative former U.N. ambassador, has called the verification argument a fig leaf for a rollback of previous U.S. hard lines on the North. "It's a complete collapse, there's no getting around it," said Bolton, now an analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "has a one-word vocabulary in this negotiation and that's 'carrots,"' Bolton says.

Asked about Bolton's comment, Bush smiled.

"There's all kinds of rumors about what is happening and what's not happening," Bush said. "Obviously, I'm not going to accept a deal that doesn't advance the interests of the region. The whole objective of the six-party talks and framework is to get them to disclose their weapons programs, is to get them to dismantle their plutonium processing, is to get them to talk about activities, nuclear activities."

While admitting that North Korea may be stalling, Bush warned against prejudging the end game.

"Why don't we just wait and see what they say before people go out there and start giving their opinions about whether or not this is a good deal or a bad deal," Bush said.

On other issues, Bush thanked Lee for agreeing to lift its ban on U.S. beef, which was on the menu at Camp David Friday night. South Korea closed its market to U.S. beef and beef products after a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, was discovered in the United States in December 2003. Before this, South Korea was the third-largest export market for U.S. beef and beef products.

Resolving the beef spat removed a major roadblock to getting Congress to ratify a free-trade deal with South Korea, but it still faces opposition from Democrats and U.S. automakers who say South Korea has not done enough to lower its barriers to American-made automobiles.

"Trade only works when the playing field is level and there is nothing fair about an agreement that allows over 750,000 Korean automobiles into America annually, while Korea continues to use high tariffs and other trade barriers to limit the number of American cars they import to little more than 6,000 a year," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Trade deals recently have gotten a chilly reception on Capitol Hill. The House decided to eliminate a rule forcing a vote on the Colombian trade deal within 60 legislative days - a move that probably kills consideration of the pact this year. Lee asked Bush how the action on Colombia affects the South Korean trade deal. Bush said he reassured Lee that he would press Congress to pass the deal this year.

On other issues, the president said he planned to maintain the current U.S. troop levels in South Korea. The U.S. is repositioning the troops on the Korean peninsula into two main hubs south of Seoul, and is working on a transition of wartime operational control to the South Koreans.

The leaders also noted the signing of an agreement that puts South Korea on a path toward visa-free travel to the U.S., and potential designation as a visa-waiver program member possibly by the end of the year.