- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2006

South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon yesterday said Seoul strongly supports the United Nations’ condemnation of North Korea for its recent missile tests, and denied that South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun was trying to play down the missile tests when he described them recently as tests carried out by the communist North for political, not military effect.

“I do not know if the United States and others have fully made up their positions, but the South Korea government will faithfully implement the U.N. Security Council resolution [1695]. We fully supported it,” Mr. Ban said.

Mr. Ban spoke with reporters from The Washington Times on the eve of an Oval Office summit today between President Bush and Mr. Roh.

Mr. Ban acknowledged there was a “perception gap” between the two allies on North Korea and other issues, a gap often exaggerated by South Korea’s domestic press.

He said the alliance remained fundamentally healthy and that public opinion in South Korea toward the United States had improved in recent years.

On other issues, the South Korean offered the following thoughts:

• The South Korean government is “firmly committed” to a new bilateral free-trade agreement with the United States. He said Seoul hoped to have a deal by spring, despite strong opposition in South Korea from farmers and other groups.

• He said Mr. Bush and Mr. Roh would not nail down at today’s meeting an accord to transfer operational control of South Korean forces in wartime. Details of such an accord would be left to military officials meeting next month.

But he said South Korea should assume responsibility as a sovereign country.

“When you are making fundamental changes, it’s better that they be done as soon as possible and not to leave a long period of uncertainty,” he said.

Mr. Roh, who last met Mr. Bush 10 months ago on the sidelines of a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders, will hold a one-hour Oval Office meeting and have an hourlong working lunch with Mr. Bush today. He met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday and will also visit San Francisco before returning home.

The short, low-key summit is in sharp contrast to the warm welcome Mr. Bush recently extended to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, one of the U.S. administration’s closest allies in the region.

That visit included a trip by the two leaders to Memphis, Tenn., to tour Graceland, home of Mr. Junichiro’s musical idol, Elvis Presley.

U.S. and South Korean officials have dismissed the idea of fundamental problems with the alliance, despite clear tactical differences in recent months over how to deal with North Korea.

But Mr. Roh, in a speech yesterday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, acknowledged there was considerable talk in both capitals about strains in the alliance forged in the early days of the Cold War.

“I am quite aware that in Korea and the United States, we have many people who are quite concerned” about the state of bilateral ties, Mr. Roh said, speaking through an interpreter.

But “in all areas where the United States has been fighting to establish order and freedom, Korea has always been at the United States’ side,” he added.

Among the delicate issues on the bilateral agenda: how tough a line to take with North Korea; a proposed U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement; and Seoul’s efforts to reclaim operational control of its military forces in wartime from U.S. command.

Mr. Ban, in an interview with South Korean journalists last month, conceded there were “a number of perception gaps” between Seoul and Washington.

“The upcoming summit is important,” he said then. “Once a perception is formed, it is difficult to remove it.”

Mr. Roh’s government, beset by scandals and worries over North Korea policy, has hit historic lows in recent South Korean polls.

The South Korean president’s five-year term ends in December 2007, but Mr. Ban, minister of foreign affairs and trade since January 2004, may be in line to move to a bigger stage.

The 62-year-old career diplomat and government minister announced in February his candidacy to succeed U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, whose term ends Dec. 31. Mr. Ban topped an unofficial Security Council straw poll held in July.

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