South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun heads for Washington on Sunday to discuss ways of reducing the North Korean nuclear threat with President Bush. The two leaders also will as well as talk over possible changes to the U.S. military presence in South Korea.
President Roh Moo-hyun's trip will take place amid rising concern over North Korea's efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials say North Korea last month in Beijing presented them with a list of political and economic benefits Pyongyang wants in exchange for scrapping its nuclear programs. The Bush administration says it is reviewing the proposal with Tokyo and Seoul.
At the Beijing talks, North Korea was said to have revealed that it does have a nuclear bomb. Last October, the United States said the communist government had admitted having a nuclear weapons program in violation of several international accords. Since then, tensions between North Korea and Washington have risen sharply, as Pyongyang withdrew from the global nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and restarted idled nuclear facilities capable of making fuel for bombs.
Since his election last December, President Roh has championed peaceful reconciliation with North Korea and rejected suggestions the United States might take military action against Pyongyang. The South Korean leader says an attack would spark a war that would be devastating for the whole Korean Peninsula.
The director of the Asiatic Research Center at Korea University in Seoul says South Koreans see the Bush administration's stance as too rigid. Choi Jang-jip expects President Roh to ask President Bush to be a bit more open-minded in addressing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. "I think President Roh Moo-hyun is much concerned about finding some room in which United States and South Korean governments in tandem provide the North Korean leadership with some inducements to come to the negotiating table," says Mr. Choi.
There are concerns in Seoul that Washington will push for United Nations sanctions against the impoverished North, or take unilateral actions that could push Pyongyang to respond with a military strike - on the South. North Korea already has said it would consider any U.N. sanctions an act of war.
Sheila Smith, a research fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii, predicts President Bush will stress that Seoul will be closely consulted before Washington makes any significant moves. "I do think that one of the messages that President Roh will have to carry back to Seoul is that alliance is, first of all, alive and well and, second of all, that the Bush administration and his administration are on the same page, so to speak, in terms of how to respond to the North," she said.
Their meeting on May 14 will be the first between the two presidents.
Dr. Choi predicts the two leaders will hit it off. "I think President Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun [are] very similar in personality and style of discussion," he says. "I think President Roh Moo-hyun is rapidly learning about the way of dealing with the important political leaders. And, I think, he can make some positive results."
Dr. Smith predicts the two leaders will agree on a multi-lateral approach toward North Korea. However, she doubts they will release specific details of any plans they develop. "I don't know, however, if it is going to be concrete enough - sort of what's coming next. I don't know that they are going to be able to come up with something publicly about the next step," she says. The Bush administration says it hopes to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue through diplomacy. But U.S. officials have not ruled out military action if diplomacy does not work.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has said the United States will not be blackmailed or intimidated by North Korea's demands and will not allow Pyongyang to export nuclear weapons.
As the two leaders seek a way to deal with North Korea, they also are expected to discuss the U.S. military bases in the South. President Roh has said he wants to reduce the number of U.S. troops in South Korea, but cautions there are differences between Washington and Seoul on the timing of doing so. There are 37,00 U.S. troops in the South, most of them near the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula, within range of massive amounts of North Korean artillery.
U.S. defense officials have suggested moving many of the troops farther south. In addition, some analysts say Washington wants to reduce the number of ground troops in the country, and boost U.S. air and naval power in the region, as part of overall plans to create a more mobile, high-technology military.
Some South Korean officials oppose any change in the U.S. bases now, because it might be interpreted in Pyongyang as a weakening of the alliance with Washington. Also, changes now could remove a bargaining chip in any negotiations with North Korea to reduce the number of its troops on the northern side of the border.