U.S., South Korea Differ over North Korea

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There was an awkward encounter between President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun at the APEC summit. The two leaders met to discuss convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But the presidents disagreed publicly over what North Korea needs to do next.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush is meeting with Asian and Pacific leaders this week in Australia.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for you introduction. Thank you for being such a fine host for the OPEC summit. I appreciate - APEC summit, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: It's worth dwelling on that acronym since APEC stands for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. The U.S. and its allies in Asia have been straining a little to figure out how they cooperate in achieving this goal.

Pres. BUSH: We must work for the day when the people of North Korea enjoy the same freedoms as the citizens of their democratic neighbors.

MONTAGNE: The U.S. and North Korea's neighbor, South Korea, don't always agree on how to get there. At the Asian summit there was an awkward encounter, today, between President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. They discussed ongoing efforts to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. But at a news briefing after the meeting, the presidents seem to disagree publicly over what North Korea needs to do next.

NPR's Don Gonyea is traveling with the president.

DON GONYEA: The photo-op began in the usual fashion. President Bush and President Roh on sat in large chairs at one end of the room, each accompanied by staff and advisers who sat in smaller chairs along each wall. The press was escorted in to hear statements from each leader.

President Bush spoke first.

Pres. BUSH: Mr. President, thank you for your time. As usual, we had a very friendly and frank discussion about important matters.

Unidentified Man (Translator): (Korean spoken)

GONYEA: President Roh followed suit as he began his statement. He spoke through an interpreter.

President ROH MOO-HYUN (South Korea): (Through translator) As President Bush has stated, we had a very constructive discussion on a six-party talks and the North Korean nuclear issue.

GONYEA: But as Roh continued, he prodded President Bush to be clearer about the U.S. position on talks aimed at bringing the Korean War to an official end. That war ended with a cease fire in 1953 but no treaty. The Peninsula remains divided between North and South, Roh push for a commitment from the U.S. on talks aimed at now formally ending that war. This was when things got interesting.

Again, Roh spoke through his interpreter.

Pres. ROH: (Through translator) I think I might be wrong. I think I did not hear President Bush mention the - a declaration to end the Korean War just now. Did you (unintelligible) President Bush?

GONYEA: President Bush, suddenly looking a little confused, responded that such talks depends on North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il ending his nuclear weapons program.

Pres. BUSH: I said that it's up to Kim Jong-il as to whether or not we're able to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean War. We've got to get rid of his weapons in a verifiable fashion.

GONYEA: But Roh continued to press stating that peace talks don't need to wait. He said a declaration of peace ending the Korean War would help relations on the Korean Peninsula and thus aid in the effort to get North Korea to disarm.

Pres. ROH: (Through translator) If you could be a little bit clearer in your message, I think that would be very much appreciated.

Pres. BUSH: I can't make it any more clearer, Mr. President. We look forward to the day when we can end the Korean War. But that won't end - that will happen when Kim Jong-il verifiably gets rid of his weapons programs and his weapons.

GONYEA: President Bush seemed annoyed and quickly ended the session.

Pres. BUSH: Thank you, sir.

GONYEA: President Bush went in to this meeting looking to pressure President Roh to take a harder line with North Korea when Roh holds a summit with Kim Jong-il later this month. It does not appear Mr. Bush succeeded at that. Afterward, the White House wasted no time in trying to downplay the incident.

A spokesman said that any appearance of conflict or tension between these two close allies was the result of something being lost in translation. He said the president left the room after the session with Roh saying it was a good meeting.

Don Gonyea, NPR News in Sydney, Australia.

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