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Bush Travels to Asia for Olympic Games, Talks


U.S. President George Bush leaves Washington Monday on what is likely to be his final official trip to Asia. VOA White House correspondent Paula Wolfson reports he will travel to South Korea, Thailand and China for the start of the Summer Olympics.

From the streets of Seoul, to the Olympic venues in Beijing, this trip was controversial before it even began.

Mr. Bush was originally expected to travel to Seoul several weeks ago, following the G-8 summit in Japan. Those plans were changed when Koreans staged massive demonstrations to protest a deal on American beef imports, and to show their discontent with their government.

Byong-Ki Kim of Korea University in Seoul says it was the wrong time for a presidential visit.

"The timing, let's say a month ago, would have been different for Bush to come," said Byong-Ki. "It is not only playing into the domestic political processes, but to possibly even be utilized politically in a very unproductive manner. It is purely domestic politics. It happens anywhere in the world."

Kim says the political climate is still volatile but has cooled a bit. And he says the Bush visit will show just how well the government can handle its diplomatic responsibilities.

The talks in Seoul are likely to focus on matters of trade and finance, as well as the status of American forces in South Korea. But North Korea's nuclear ambitions should dominate the discussions.

Derek Mitchell, an Asia policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, calls North Korea a "legacy issue" for President Bush.

"He has a lot on the line and we are getting to the very difficult period on the issue of verification of the declaration the North Koreans have provided on their nuclear program," said Mitchell.

Mr. Bush is expected to shift focus in Thailand to another world trouble spot - neighboring Burma.

"Our message is the United States believes in democracy and freedom," he said.

Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirik of Bangkok's Chulalonghorn University says Mr. Bush may be focusing too much on Burma and not enough on other matters of concern in the region.

"When the Bush administration pays attention to Southeast Asia, it's about Burma. So, the US foreign policy has really not fully engaged in the region," said Pongsudhirik.

Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country on the trip, and the president will stay there less than 24 hours. The next day he will be off to Beijing where he hopes to play another role - that of sports fan.

"I think it would be good for these athletes who have worked hard to see their president, waving that flag," said Mr. Bush.

Derek Mitchell says that may be wishful thinking on the part of the president.

"The president simply can't go as a human being enjoying sports. The president goes with the full weight and prestige of the United States when he sits at the opening ceremonies and sees the celebration of China," said Mitchell.

Critics say Beijing's actions in Tibet and Sudan's Darfur region provide enough reason for a presidential boycott. But Mitchell says once Mr. Bush accepted the invitation from Chinese President Hu Jintao, there was no turning back.

"He said he was going immediately so it was much more difficult for him to backtrack from that without seeming to humiliate or embarrass the Chinese people in some way," added Mitchell.

President Bush has said skipping the games would be an affront to the Chinese. And at a send-off ceremony for American Olympians at the White House, he said he can not wait to cheer them on in person.

"I'm fired up to go. I can't wait to salute our athletes, and I can't wait to share in the joy of your triumphs," he said.

The president said he sees the U.S. athletes as ambassadors of liberty, who will represent America's love for freedom in Beijing.

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