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South Korean President to Meet with Bush

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Here in Washington, President Bush meets today with South Korea's president. Roh Moo-hyun is in the US to discuss the possibility of restarting talks with North Korea. The US and South Korea have deep differences over how to handle North Korea's nuclear program. NPR's Mike Shuster reports this morning on the struggle to resolve those differences.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

The United States and South Korea agree that North Korea has nuclear weapons, is producing more and that the ultimate goal of negotiations is to get the North to give them up. But after that, the disagreements start. For the Bush administration, the issue is a global one, part of the fight to prevent weapons of mass destruction from getting into the hands of terrorists. Gi-Wook Shin, a professor of East Asian politics at Stanford University, says the South Koreans don't see that as a priority.

Professor GI-WOOK SHIN (Stanford University): I think that's of rather secondary importance for South Korean people. Their more fundamental concern is about any possibility of military conflict in the Korean Peninsula.

SHUSTER: Talk of North Korea as part of the axis of evil, talk of regime change and hints of a possible US attack to destroy the North's nuclear facilities have unnerved many in South Korea. The South Koreans are opposed to military options and to anything that might destabilize the political status quo in the Korean Peninsula. To this end, President Roh Moo-hyun has favored economic and political engagement with the North. He is expected to urge President Bush to engage more deeply as well, says Gi-Wook Shin.

Prof. GI-WOOK: It's an expression of frustration of the unwillingness on the US part to talk to North Korea more directly, more seriously, more effectively.

SHUSTER: The Bush administration has tried to play down the differences it has with the South Korean president. That was the thrust of remarks earlier this week from assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Hill said the policies of the US and the South Koreans are in sync.

Mr. CHRIS HILL (Assistant Secretary of State): They understand--they fully understand that there cannot be nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. There may be nuances of difference over how to solve it, but I think everyone understands this needs to be solved.

SHUSTER: For months, President Bush has insisted he favors the resumption of the Six-Party format for negotiations, which includes China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, as well as the US and North Korea. Those talks have been stalled for the past year, largely because North Korea refused to attend. But Pyongyang hinted this week it may soon return to the table. The Bush administration has been divided over how to handle North Korea, with some hard-liners led, it is believed, by Vice President Cheney, resisting any flexibility in the way the US approaches the talks. On the other side are those who argue the US must offer North Korea a range of political and economic incentives. Earlier this spring, special US negotiator Joseph DiTrani said the US had made North Korea, which he refers to as the DPRK, an offer that included significant incentives for giving up its nuclear weapons.

Mr. JOSEPH DITRANI (Special US Negotiator): Moving to resolve this nuclear issue will open the DPRK up to international financial institutions, will open them up to investments that will nurture the economic reforms we hear so much about, that will work towards alleviating some of the issues like the energy issues, the food issues and so forth. It would be a major, major move on the part of the DPRK to open that country up.

SHUSTER: But even some who worked in the Bush administration believed the US can do better. Thomas Hubbard was, until last year, US ambassador to South Korea.

Mr. THOMAS HUBBARD (Former US Ambassador to South Korea): Once we get back to the table, the United States needs to be prepared to spend more time bilaterally with the North Koreans during the course of the Six-Party talks. I think we also need to be prepared to indicate more clearly at an earlier stage what the advantages are for North Korea, what North Korea has to gain from giving up its nuclear weapons.

SHUSTER: At the same time, Hubbard argues, others at the table with a strong stake in the outcome also have to play a role in persuading the North Koreans.

Mr. HUBBARD: South Korea and China need to indicate a bit more clearly what North Korea has to lose by continuing down this nuclear path.

SHUSTER: That certainly could include economic sanctions, the interruption of trade and the possible cutoff of food and fuel aid. It's a threat that China and South Korea have so far been reluctant to make. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.