President Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Saturday that there still is a chance to make progress on eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons programs, urging critics to see what Pyongyang says in a required declaration before deciding whether nations are being too lenient.
"We need persistent patience, ladies and gentlemen," Lee said, side-by-side with Bush here at the presidential retreat where the two leaders met for two days of talks. "It's difficult to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons programs, but it is not impossible."
Nuclear talks between North Korea and five other nations, including the United States and South Korea, are stalled over whether Pyongyang will hand over a promised full declaration of its nuclear programs — its uranium enrichment program as well as alleged proliferation activities — in return for concessions. The North made unprecedented progress last year, including closing its working plutonium reactor, but work slowed in a dispute over how much the North had to reveal in the declaration, due in December.
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 Kim Jong Il's government to make sure it has told the truth. The administration is arguing that although it has scaled back its demands about what the North must admit about its nuclear past, it will still get the information it wants, along with new ways to make sure Pyongyang isn't cheating.
Bush to strike a deal with Pyongyang?
But Bush critics, especially in the right wing of the Republican Party, claim the president is lowering the bar for the nation he once included in his so-called "axis of evil." They claim Bush appears more interested in striking a deal with Pyongyang before he leaves office than making North Korea honor its pledge.
"Why don't we just wait and see what they say before people go out there and start giving their opinions about whether this is a good deal or a bad deal?" Bush said.
In his comments defending his administration's approach, the president stressed the importance of establishing effective ways to verify whatever North Korea says.
"The burden of proof is there," he said. "We and our partners will take a look at North Korea's full declaration to determine whether or not, you know, the activities they promised they could do can be verified and then we'll make a judgment of our own."
He added: "Obviously, I'm not going to accept a deal that doesn't advance the interests of the region. ... But somehow people are precluding, you know, jumping ahead of the game."
Lee, a pro-American conservative, has taken a stronger stance against North Korea's nuclear program, than his more liberal predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun. Lee's get-tough rhetoric against his communist neighbor may even be tougher than Bush's at the moment.
But he and Bush were on the same page during their joint appearance.
"I think it is unconstructive to have too many doubts before the process begins," said Lee, speaking through a translator.
Bush said "of course they may be trying to stall" by not turning in the declaration yet. "It's hard to tell what's going on," he said, because North Korea is such a closed society, ruled by a dictatorship regime.
"The key thing is we haven't abandoned the efforts to solve this peacefully and diplomatically," Bush said.
Relations between the United States and South Korea have been tense in recent years and Lee has said that improving them is a top priority for him. South Korea is a strong U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, and its troops have served in Iraq since 2003. South Korea became the third-largest troop contributor to the U.S.-led coalition in 2004 when it deployed a division to northern Iraq.
Lee made the United States his first foreign trip. Bush was doing his part too, extending the Camp David invitation to Lee, something reserved for only the closest allies. Bush said no Korean leader had ever been to the rustic, wooded mountaintop compound before. Bush and Lee also announced that the U.S. president would make a reciprocal visit to South Korea sometime this summer.
Bush said the main purpose of the visit was to "strengthen the relationship between our two countries — and I believe we have done so."
Bush ticked through key issues for Seoul.
He said the leaders agreed to maintain the current U.S. troop levels in South Korea.
Bush also said he was directing administration officials to work with Congress to grant Seoul's request to have the same access to technical information as NATO and other allies. "I strongly support this," Bush said.
The two sides also took a big step forward this week toward South Korea's goal of its citizens being exempted from needing a visa to travel to the United States. And Bush pledged to "press hard with the United States Congress" for approval of a pending free-trade agreement with South Korea.
On Friday, South Korea announced it would lift its ban on U.S. beef imports, removing one obstacle to getting lawmakers to ratify the trade deal.
The pact faces significant opposition in the Democratic-controlled Congress, however, and both Democratic presidential candidates voice increasingly anti-free trade sentiments. Automakers also have concerns.