BBC – South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is preparing to meet US President George Bush for talks on the continuing nuclear stand-off with North Korea.
It is President Roh’s first meeting with Mr Bush since he came to office in February, and is likely to prove a huge diplomatic challenge. Significant differences remain between the two leaders over North Korea.
Mr Roh has stressed that continued engagement with the North is the best way to forge a peaceful solution on the Korean peninsula, whilst Washington has taken a tougher line – reserving the right to push for economic sanctions against the isolated North, or even resort to military action.
The crisis on the Korean peninsula has been simmering since last October, when Washington said Pyongyang admitted to a secret nuclear weapons programme.
At a meeting between the US and North Korea aimed at resolving the issue in April, Pyongyang reportedly offered to give up its nuclear programme in exchange for substantial economic and diplomatic concessions.
Washington said it would review the offer. Any decision is likely to be influenced by the US’ allies in the region – South Korea, and Japan, whose leader Mr Bush is meeting later this month.
Mr Roh will meet Mr Bush at 1700 (2200 GMT). He is also expected to hold talks with Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
US officials said President Bush’s main objective is to project a unified front on North Korea to avoid any rift that Pyongyang might try to exploit.
The administration in Washington is reportedly split on how to deal with the rogue state.
The BBC’s Caroline Gluck in Seoul says Mr Roh will also hope to reaffirm the alliance between the two countries which has been strained by recent anti-US sentiment in the South over the large number of US troops stationed in the country.
Although Mr Roh came to office promising to work for a more equal relationship with the US, the escalating tensions with North Korea have underlined Seoul’s military dependence on Washington.
Drumming up business
Mr Roh’s week-long trip US is also designed to cement business ties between South Korea and the US – Seoul’s biggest trading partner and investor.
At a meeting with the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-Korea Business Council on Tuesday, Mr Roh appealed for more business links between the two countries, despite the current tensions on the Korean peninsula.
He said that although he did not have any “rash expectations” that the problem could be resolved right away, US-South Korean coordination was a “stepping stone” towards a peaceful solution.
North Korea maintained its bellicose stance against the US on Wednesday, describing Washington’s decision at the end of April to keep Pyongyang on its list of “state sponsors of terrorism” as a trick to provide a pretext for a military attack.
The comment, in the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun, followed an announcement by Pyongyang on Monday that it was pulling out of its last remaining international obligation to keep itself nuclear-free.
The Stalinist state said it considered the 1992 North-South pact a “dead document”.
A defector from North Korea has alleged that the country has already developed dozens of nuclear weapons, as well as secretly importing bombs from the former Soviet Union, the French news agency AFP reported on Wednesday.
The man, who claims to be a former North Korean People’s Army general, told the Japanese magazine Gendai’s June edition that Pyongyang had four Soviet-made nuclear missiles, which have the capacity to reach the west coast of the US, AFP said.