Bush welcomes South Korean president Friday

/ Source: The Associated Press

A new South Korean leader who talks tough about North Korea represents a welcome change for a Bush administration that thinks Seoul has been too soft on its communist neighbor.

President Bush and Lee Myung-bak, in two days of talks to begin Friday, will be eager to signal a new, cooperative tone as they push a reluctant Congress to ratify an ambitious free trade deal and discuss ways to persuade the North to fulfill commitments in six-nation nuclear negotiations.

A spat over a ban of American beef which had been on the leaders’ agenda was resolved early Friday. The South Korean Agriculture Ministry said Seoul would allow U.S. beef imports from cattle younger than 30 months. Younger cows are believed to be less at risk for mad cow disease.

South Korea said it would allow beef from older cattle after the U.S. strengthens controls on feed to reduce chances of infection.

While taking a harder line with the North, Lee also will propose creating a permanent high-level diplomatic channel between North Korea and South Korea, including establishing the first liaison offices in the nations’ capitals after nearly six decades of division, The Washington Post reported in Friday editions.

“Both North and South Korea must change their ways,” Lee said in an interview Thursday with the newspaper’s editors and reporters.

He said he wants to establish a permanent channel so the nations could have a regular dialogue, rather than intermittent contacts elicited by crises. He said that offices should be headed by officials with direct access to the leaders of each country.

“Between the two Koreas we need to always have dialogue going on,” Lee told the Post.

Lee tougher on N. Korea than Bush?
Lee, a former construction chief executive nicknamed “The Bulldozer” for his determination to get things done, has ended a decade of liberal rule in which South Korea sought to embrace the North and refrained from criticism. The relief in Washington has been evident in the Bush administration’s praise of Lee’s insistence that the North follow through on nuclear pledges before receiving aid from its southern neighbor and rival.

Lee’s position on North Korea may turn out to be even tougher than Bush’s because the United States is pressing hard for an agreement. Nuclear talks are stalled over whether the North will hand over a promised full declaration of its nuclear programs in return for concessions. The Bush administration apparently has decided that the declaration’s exact contents are less important than an assurance that the nuclear negotiators can check up on the Kim Jong Il’s government to make sure it has told the truth.

This has prompted skepticism even from within Bush’s own party.

California Rep. Ed Royce, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs terrorism, nonproliferation and trade subcommittee, said he raised the need to verify any North Korean actions in a meeting Thursday with Lee. “Congress is carefully watching the six-party talks, and solid verification is a must if the process is to move forward,” Royce said in an interview.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tried Thursday to head off criticism that the Bush administration was being too lenient or trusting. The administration insisted it was not giving up leverage over North Korea in the nuclear talks and would not take the North at its word.

Camp David invitation
The highlight of Lee’s Washington visit will come when he is feted at the Camp David presidential retreat in mountains north of the capital, where he was to stay overnight Friday. Jack Pritchard, the State Department’s special envoy for North Korea negotiations until 2003, said at a recent conference that the Camp David invitation is an “extraordinary symbolic gesture and a guarantee of success of the summit, even if they just showed up and shook hands.”

Several other signs also point to the leaders hitting it off. Bruce Klingner, a Northeast Asia analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said in an interview that both men are former businessmen with conservative free-market ideas; both are Christian; both say they want to hold the North accountable to its nuclear pledges, and both view the U.S.-South Korean relationship as crucial to Asian security.

By contrast, Bush’s meetings with Lee’s predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, who was elected on an anti-America platform, were often notable for their awkwardness, fueling the perception that the leaders did not like each other. Roh favored a “sunshine” policy that provided aid without demanding concessions from North Korea.

Lee also has begun to address North Korea’s mistreatment of its citizens, which the previous two South Korean presidents during Bush’s tenure shied away from.

Also high on the presidents’ agenda will be an accord to slash tariffs and other barriers to trade. That deal could be in trouble as lawmakers, including Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, voice increasingly anti-free trade sentiments.