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Seoul Criticizes Bush for 'Axis of Evil' Remarks - 2002-02-12

As President Bush prepares to travel to East Asia, he continues to face a storm of criticism over remarks in his State of the Union address in January. In that speech, Mr. Bush listed three countries, North Korea, Iran and Iraq, as being what he called an "axis of evil." Analysts say Mr. Bush faces a huge job of damage control when he visits Seoul next week as part of his Asian tour.

The repercussions from Mr. Bush's January remarks continue to be felt, in the form of criticism and puzzled reactions from U.S. allies in Asia, and questions at home.

In South Korea, there have been demonstrations against the Bush comments, and strong reaction from South Korean lawmakers. They accused Mr. Bush of damaging President Kim Dae-Jung's "sunshine policy" of engaging North Korea, and adding additional strains to the U.S. - South Korea relationship.

More than half of South Koreans surveyed in one public opinion poll felt Mr. Bush's remarks were inappropriate, with more than two thirds favoring a softer U.S. approach to Pyongyang.

North Korea's official media accused Washington of planning a preemptive military strike. Concerns were also raised in China and Japan - the two other stops on Mr. Bush's Asia itinerary.

The reaction abroad and at home has prompted administration officials to issue clarifications to, and expand upon, the president's comments. In congressional testimony Tuesday, Secretary of State Colin Powell reassured lawmakers that no military action against North Korea is being planned.

"We want to contain North Korea's activities with respect to proliferation," he said. "And we're going to keep the pressure on them. But there is no plan to begin a war with North Korea, nor is there a plan to begin a conflict with Iran."

There has been intense media discussion about what message President Bush was trying to send last month. On Capitol Hill, several legislators who are supportive of the war against terrorism, have expressed concern about the Bush remarks.

In comments Monday to Jim Lehrer of the Public Broadcasting Service, Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said Mr. Bush was right in calling attention to the danger posed by North Korea, and Iran and Iraq, but said the United States needs to be "very careful with rhetoric of that kind."

Two former U.S. ambassadors who served in East Asia - Morton Abramowitz and James Laney - said in The Washington Post commentary Mr. Bush was correct in his description of the nature of North Korea. However, they expressed concern his words could have what they call "dangerous escalatory consequences."

As for the effect on inter-Korean dialogue, Michael O'Hanlon, a Korea expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, is concerned about the impact on President Kim Dae-Jung and his efforts to keep the process alive.

"I am more worried about wasting the last year of Kim Dae Jung's presidency, more fully discrediting the sunshine policy than events and President Bush and [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il have already managed to do. This is still a great opportunity to make some progress in this last year," he said.

Gordon Flake is a Korea specialist at the Mansfield Center for Public Affairs in Washington and says Mr. Bush must emphasize both the U.S. commitment to engagement with Pyongyang and support for South Korea's president.

"In the end, I think his real task is going to be to remind the South Koreans and everyone else at hand that the U.S.-South Korean relationship is far broader than just the sunshine policy," he said.

A key item of discussion when President Bush visits Seoul and Tokyo will be the status of the 1994 agreement under which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear programs in exchange for two light-water power reactors, and other assistance.

David Brown is an expert on the Korean peninsula at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. He and other analysts note that implementation of the agreement is approaching a crucial stage.

"The crunch will come when the time comes to export the significant nuclear supply system for the power reactor. At that point in time, North Korea must have come into full compliance with its NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) safeguards. they have not done so. The administration, both Clinton and Bush, have been pushing the North Koreans to move in this direction and they have been proceeding very, very slowly," Mr. Brown said.

In Seoul, meanwhile, the Korea Times reported that the government would urge Pyongyang to take concrete steps take to ease US concerns over weapons of mass destruction. President Bush and President Kim Dae-Jung are scheduled to meet on February 20.