By Associated Press Writer
updated 9/13/2006 12:37:44 PM ET 2006-09-13T16:37:44

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun 's meeting Thursday with President Bush comes amid lingering tension between the allies over a protracted nuclear standoff with North Korea.

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Both leaders want the North to return to stalled negotiations aimed at persuading Kim Jong Il's regime to scrap its self-proclaimed nuclear bomb production program, but bickering has flared occasionally on just how to achieve that.

"The most important thing is that they can get along, and project that to the world," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, said.

"They just totally see the world differently," O'Hanlon added, calling the Roh-Bush relationship perhaps "the single rockiest" of Bush's tenure and "probably the one with the greatest consequences."

How the two allies handle the North Korean nuclear issue matters because some believe mixed messages from Washington and Seoul have allowed the reclusive North to boost its nuclear arsenal while falling into deeper isolation.

Efforts to restart the disarmament talks have gained greater urgency in recent weeks as leaders worry about a potential North Korean nuclear weapons test and considering the North's decision to test launch seven missiles in July. But so far, no resumption of the negotiations by the Koreas, the United States, Russia, Japan and China is in sight.

Bush favors a hard-line approach, refusing to talk to the North outside of the six-nation talks, which Pyongyang has boycotted since November. Roh has preached patience while seeking to engage Kim's communist government.

"North Korean policy has been foundering, in part because North Korea sees the huge gap between Seoul and Washington and drives right through it," O'Hanlon said. "Narrowing that gap at least a little, or preventing it from getting wider, is the beginning of success."

Roh's visit will be a low-key affair, in marked contrast to a June trip by the leader of another major U.S. ally in Asia, Japan. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi spoke publicly of his "heart-to-heart" friendship with Bush during that visit, and Bush treated Koizumi to a presidential tour of the home of the prime minister's musical hero, Elvis Presley.

Roh's trip promises little to match the glamour of Koizumi's, with only an Oval Office meeting and a working lunch with Bush on Thursday, before the South Korean leader travels to the West Coast.

On Wednesday, Roh planned to visit the Korean War Memorial and to speak with business leaders and members of Congress. Separately, U.S. lawmakers were expected to consider on Wednesday a North Korean nonproliferation measure and a resolution asking Japan to accept responsibility for the sexual exploitation of women in Asia during World War II.

During their meeting, Roh and Bush also will discuss an ambitious U.S.-South Korean free trade proposal. Seoul also wants to have command of its troops in a war, which would require lifting a Korean War-era agreement that South Korean troops be under U.S. command in wartime. The focus of the talks, however, will be North Korea.

Michael Green, Bush's senior adviser on Asia until December, said Roh and Bush have a good working relationship, but he noted that there will be intense pressure on Roh from some back home to emphasize differences with Washington about North Korea.

In the past, Roh has lobbied Bush to change the tone of U.S. policy on North Korea, an attempt to cater to South Koreans who favor expanding ties with the North, said Green, now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Roh, who was elected on pledges not to kowtow to the United States, has lashed out at officials in Washington for what he said were attempts to force the collapse of North Korea's regime. He has also faced new record lows in his popularity, according to recent surveys.

"The fundamentals of U.S.-South Korean relations strategically are very sound," Green said. "But the politics of the relationship, especially in South Korea, are very volatile right now, and it's going to take political leadership from both sides to weather this period."

If Roh "presses the president publicly to demonstrate a softer line, or somehow tries to convey to the Korean public that Washington is the problem, not North Korea, that will not be well received" at the White House, Green said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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