- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, Jan. 29 (UPI) — South Korean officials Wednesday welcomed U.S. President George W. Bush's pledge to find a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue. But they also expressed concern that Bush's tough words about the North's communist leadership could hurt efforts to seek a diplomatic solution to the months-long nuclear stand-off.

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Bush said that the United States would pursue a peaceful resolution to North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program while working with South Korea, Japan, China and Russia. Bush, who vowed during the speech to disarm Iraq, said he was seeking a diplomatic approach to North Korea because "different threats require different strategies."

"President Bush reiterated the existing U.S. position to settle the North Korean nuclear issue in a peaceful manner," a senior official at the Foreign Ministry told United Press International. The official, who requested anonymity, said there had been "no provocative remarks against North Korea like 'axis of evil' used in last year's speech."

Bush did not use the phrase of "axis of evil" to refer to North Korea but called it one of the "outlaw regimes."

"But this year's speech showed that President Bush remains skeptical about the North Korean leadership, which could hamper a peaceful settlement of the nuclear issues through dialogue," the official said.

There was no immediate North Korean response to Bush's address, said an official at Seoul's Unification Ministry, which handles relations with North Korea.

"I am concerned a possible angry response from North Korea may raise nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula," he said.

South Korea has backed dialogue as the only path to resolving the nuclear crisis, which was set off in October when Washington said that North Korea acknowledged having a secret uranium-based nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement. Pyongyang later expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, removed seals from a mothballed reactor and pulled out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

On Tuesday, Bush accused North Korea of "deceiving" the world and vowed not be "blackmailed" into granting concessions to it.

"Today the North Korean regime is using its nuclear program to incite fear and seek concessions. America and the world will not be blackmailed," he said. Bush also blasted North Korean leader Kim Jong-il as "an oppressive regime" that "rules a people living in fear and starvation."

Earlier on Tuesday, North Korea issued a strong warning of an increasing threat of war on the peninsula, saying the United States was making "a final examination" of an attack plan that American forces could carry out within hours of receiving orders.

"The situation on the Korean Peninsula is deteriorating so rapidly that an armed clash may break (out)," the North's state-run news agency said, adding the country "was prepared to answer the threat of an attack with "the unlimited use of means."

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