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Bush Seeks Talks with North Korea - 2002-02-20

President Bush has said he wants to open talks with North Korea, despite his portrayal of that country as a threat to world peace. The president visited the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea Wednesday, promising continued support for South Korean efforts at reunification.

Driving past tank traps and mine fields, President Bush came to the end of the line for South Korea's unification railway, where the tracks stop at the heavily-fortified border. North Korea has refused to resume road or rail links between the countries, divided for more than 50 years.

President Bush called on North Korean leaders to bridge that gap, saying they should honor their promise to build a highway between the cities of Munsan, in the South, and Kaeson, in the North.

"That road has the potential to bring the peoples on both sides of this divided land together. And for the good of all the Korean people, the North should finish it. Traveling south on that road, the people of the North would see, not a threat, but a miracle of peaceful development Asia's third-largest economy that has risen from the ruins of war," he said.

If North Korea completes the road south, President Bush said, its people would see more than the physical wealth of South Korea. They would see what he called "creativity and spiritual freedom."

"They would see a great, hopeful alternative to stagnation and starvation. And they would find friends and partners in the rebuilding of their country," Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush visited the Dorasan train station. "May this railroad unite Korean families," he wrote on a concrete railway tie. South Korea finished work on its side of the border earlier this month. North Korea has yet to start construction.

South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung said he hopes the railway is reconnected soon, making a now empty train station into a place of hope.

"The crowds and cargo are nowhere to be seen. It is a dormant train station," the South Korean president said. "The reason is the demarcation line that blocks its path. The scene we are witnessing is the last vestige of the Cold War in the world."

Following an earlier meeting with President Kim, Mr. Bush called North Korean leaders "despotic" for allowing their own people to starve while the military develops weapons of mass destruction. The president repeated his concerns that North Korea threatens world peace because it could help terrorists acquire chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons.

But he said neither the United States nor South Korea have any intention of attacking North Korea. He said both he and President Kim agree that dialogue is the best way to achieve peace on the Korean peninsula.

"We are prepared to talk with the North about steps that would lead to a better future, a future that is more hopeful and less threatening, but like this road left unbuilt, our offer has gone unanswered. Someday, we all hope the stability of this peninsula will be built on the reconciliation of its two halves," Mr. Bush said.

President Bush says people on both sides of the Korean border want to live in freedom and dignity, without what he calls "the threat of violence and famine and war."

"No nation should be a prison for its own people," he said.

President Kim says there is no major difference between his "sunshine policy" to improve relations with the North and President Bush's concerns about North Korean development of weapons of mass destruction.

South Korean protesters say the U.S. leader's comments have raised tensions on the Korean peninsula. South Korean riot police scuffled with demonstrators Tuesday outside the military base where the president's plane arrived from Tokyo.

Thursday morning Mr. Bush will visit some of the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea before leaving for China on the last stop of his week-long trip to Asia.