- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday took a laissez faire approach to South Korea, saying the impeachment of President Roh Moo-hyun is an internal political matter and will not affect six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear standoff.

“We continue to work through the multilateral talks when it comes to North Korea,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S.-South Korean relations and its alliance remain “strong, stable and vital.”

He noted that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon had a conversation yesterday morning in which they “reaffirmed to each other that we’d keep working together and cooperating as this unfolds in Korea.”

“I don’t see, really, any change in the current level of cooperation. Certainly the secretary and the Korean foreign minister agreed today we’d continue to work together on this and other topics,” he said.

South Korea’s government was thrown into turmoil Thursday when Mr. Roh was im13 months of a five-year term. His foes charged him with failing to maintain political neutrality ahead of the April 15 parliamentary elections, a violation of the law. He was ousted by a 193-2 vote in the opposition-controlled legislature.

Prime Minister Goh Kun immediately took over as acting head of state until the Constitutional Court approves or rejects the impeachment, which could take up to six months. If Mr. Roh is removed from office, a new election will be held.

Mr. Goh, 66, pledged to stabilize the economy as Seoul’s main index slumped nearly 5 percent in morning trading before coming off its lows at the close, and ordered South Korea’s 700,000-strong military to heighten its security posture along the heavily fortified border with North Korea.

While Mr. Goh plans a foreign policy more independent of the United States, Mr. Boucher said the U.S.-South Korean cooperation “has been excellent on international issues as well on things like economic cooperation” and expressed confidence that it will remain so in the future.

Mitchell Reiss, the State Department’s director of policy planning, also said he expects no disruption to the talks to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. The talks — which include North and South Korea, Japan, the United States, China and Russia — are set to resume in Beijing by the end of June.

He also warned that the United States could use unspecified measures to eliminate a North Korean threat.

In a speech emphasizing that the potential for a deal depended on North Korea, Mr. Reiss’ statements were a response to Pyongyang’s criticism of the U.S. stance at last month’s second round of six-way talks. The United States maintains that North Korea must give up its nuclear programs.

Mr. Reiss said a final deal should involve financial and food aid as well as what he called North Korea’s economic and diplomatic integration in the international community.

President Bush, who has called North Korea part of an “axis of evil” with Iran and prewar Iraq, has said the United States does not intend to attack the nation. But Pyongyang continues to voice fears of such an action and demands Washington drop its policy of “hostility.”

The most recent round of talks in China fizzled last week after four days with just an agreement to establish working groups and to convene again before June.

The talks failed to resolve differences over the prime U.S. demand for the complete dismantling of the secretive Stalinist country’s nuclear programs. North Korea called the U.S. demand “criminal” and said progress was impossible given the impasse.

The removal of Mr. Roh is not a foregone conclusion. The impeachment measure will go into effect if six or more of the court’s nine judges approve the legislative vote, but seven of the current nine were appointed under the Roh administration.

“I expect the Constitutional Court to make a legal judgment which will be different from a political one,” Mr. Roh said after the impeachment vote. If he is ousted, an election to pick a new president will be held within two months.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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