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S. Korean President-Elect Accepts Bush's Invitation - 2002-12-21

South Korea's president-elect Roh Moo-hyun has accepted an invitation to meet U.S. President Bush in Washington. The two leaders pledged to strengthen bilateral ties and work for a peaceful answer to North Korea's nuclear program.

President Bush phoned South Korean's future leader, Roh Moo-hyun, late Friday to offer his "warmest congratulations" on Mr. Roh's election victory and to invite the president-elect to visit Washington "at his earliest convenience." Mr. Roh accepted the invitation, but no date has yet been set.

A statement from Mr. Roh's office said the two men agreed to work closely for peace on the Korean peninsula, and to strengthen U.S.-South Korean ties.

The telephone conversation and Mr. Roh's comments following his victory on Thursday have eased concerns about the future of relations between the traditionally close allies.

Mr. Roh, a liberal from the ruling Millennium Democratic Party, won a narrow victory in the election, partly by tapping into growing anti-American sentiment. This resentment was magnified after a U.S. court martial acquitted two American soldiers in the accidental deaths of two South Korean schoolgirls.

During the campaign, Mr. Roh pledged to modify the Status of Forces Agreement that governs the legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops stationed in the country. Mr. Roh and many other South Koreans want to give Seoul greater jurisdiction over American soldiers who commit crimes or other infractions.

(The United States has maintained a military presence in South Korea since the Korean War ended in an armistice nearly 50 years ago. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war, and successive South Korea governments have requested that U.S. troops remain to help deter another conflict.)

Before his election Mr. Roh criticized President Bush's confrontational policy towards North Korea, saying it was raising tensions on the Korean peninsula. He pledged to continue with the out-going South Korean administration's policy of engaging Pyongyang in dialogue.

Washington has said it will not deal with North Korea until it dismantles its nuclear-weapons program. Pyongyang recently admitted it has a program to enrich uranium, in violation of a 1994 agreement with Washington. More recently, it threatened to reactive a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade nuclear material.

Mr. Roh has been highly critical of the United States in the past, but since his election, he has moderated his tone. He admitted having made comments on the election trail without giving full consideration to their diplomatic and security implications.

Mr. Roh is a novice in foreign affairs, who has never traveled outside South Korea. Ironically, he will be taking office in the middle of a tense international confrontation between North Korea and the rest of the world - a situation in which South Korea is expected to play an important role.