- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said yesterday he shares a “common understanding” with the Bush administration on dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis, but he conceded he has no “rash expectations” that the standoff with the North will be resolved soon.

Mr. Roh holds his first meeting with President Bush at the White House today amid soaring tensions in Northeast Asia over Pyongyang’s avowed effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

Addressing an overflow audience at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Mr. Roh said he was confident the North Korean crisis could be resolved “through peaceful means without further aggravation,” noting the U.S. government has repeatedly said it hoped to resolve the impasse through diplomatic means.

“Korea and the United States share a common understanding of how to resolve the problem,” Mr. Roh said, speaking through an interpreter.

But he acknowledged: “I do not have any rash expectations that the North Korean nuclear problem can be resolved right away. There will be numerous difficulties ahead.”

Despite direct pleas from South Korea, Mr. Bush and his aides have refused to rule out military action altogether against Pyongyang to force it to abide by past agreements not to develop or export nuclear weapons.

Even as Mr. Roh was speaking, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker was slamming North Korea’s decision Monday to renounce a 1992 joint pact with the South on the denuclearization of the tense, divided Korean Peninsula, one of the last formal agreements restraining Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Reeker called the North’s move a “regrettable step in the wrong direction,” saying the North’s efforts to blame others for the escalation of the crisis “are, frankly, convincing to no one.”

Mr. Roh has sharpened his own criticism of the North during his five-day U.S. tour, saying yesterday that Pyongyang “must give up its nuclear program without fail so it can become a responsible member of the international community.”

Mr. Roh, who took office in February, meets with Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage today during what is the 56-year-old former labor lawyer’s first visit to the United States.

While Seoul and Washington remain divided over how tough a line to strike with the North, Mr. Bush and Mr. Roh are under heavy pressure to avoid a public rift that could be exploited by Pyongyang.

The South Korean president came to power in a campaign marked at times by anti-American sentiment and by criticism of the country’s “chaebols,” the giant business conglomerates that have long fueled the country’s spectacular economic growth.

Mr. Roh devoted much of his address attempting to reassure the U.S. business group that his administration would pursue policies friendly to foreign investment and economic growth.

Mr. Roh, who met with Wall Street financiers on the first day of his trip Monday, departed from his prepared text yesterday to acknowledge that he was “relatively unknown, especially to the international community” when he was elected in December.

“I believe that is one reason why many foreign investors, and [many] in Korea as well, thought my policies were … rather unstable,” Mr. Roh said.

He vowed to continue economic reforms that would increase “transparency” in the South Korean economy and level the field for foreign investors and companies seeking to enter the domestic market.

In sharp contrast to his campaign rhetoric against chaebols, Mr. Roh noted proudly yesterday his large delegation included 31 leading South Korean businessmen and representatives from five top Korean trade groups.

Victor D. Cha, director of the American Alliances in Asia Project at Georgetown University, said Mr. Roh and his aides are less worried about a military attack from the North than they are about the effect the crisis is having on South Korea’s economy, just emerging from the Asian financial meltdown of 1997-98.

“Confidence in the South Korean market has plummeted” since the North Korean admission of a nuclear program in October, Mr. Cha said.

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