Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - President Bush has arrived in South Korea, where his program Wednesday will include a visit to the demilitarized zone separating the democratic South from the communist North -- a country he recently branded as "evil," upsetting Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel.
The president will also hold talks with President Kim Dae-jung, whose policy of rapprochement with North Korea has been faltering against the backdrop of a firmer approach toward Pyongyang by the Bush administration.
Arriving from Japan Tuesday, Bush flew into a political storm sparked by charges by a lawmaker from Kim's own party, made in parliament, that the American leader was the "incarnation of evil."
Many members of the ruling Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) were upset when Bush in his State of the Union address lumped North Korea with Iran and Iraq as an "axis of evil" because of their support for terrorism.
Washington has in particular highlighted concerns about the North's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program and export of missiles.
Bush's comments drew angry reaction from North Korea, prompting fears in the south that hopes for reconciliation could be set back. As Bush arrived in Seoul, demonstrators protesting his comments about North Korea clashed with police in the capital.
But during his talks with Kim Wednesday, Bush is expected to voice strong support for his "sunshine" reconciliation policy and propose reopening dialogue with North Korea.
Since the State of the Union, Secretary of State Colin Powell has stressed that the U.S. was willing to reopen talks with Pyongyang at any time, any place, and without preconditions. Bush may now personally repeat the offer.
Before flying to Seoul, Bush said in Japan that the U.S. wanted to "resolve all issues peacefully" when it came to the three rogue states, but would keep all options on the table.
Bush and Kim are to pay a symbolic visit to the northernmost point of a railroad rebuilt by the South Koreans as part of a project to link the two Koreas. The North Koreans have yet to start work on their portion of the "unification railway," which consequently comes in a dead-end near the DMZ.
Bush will also get to glimpse North Korea from the 151 mile-long DMZ which divides the peninsula.
"On the one side of the [38th ] parallel we've got people starving to death because a nation chooses to build weapons of mass destruction," he said while in Japan. "On the other side is freedom. And it's important for those of us who love freedom to work with nations to convince them to choose freedom."
Washington's stance toward Pyongyang has had an impact on domestic South Korean politics.
Speaking in the National Assembly a day before Bush arrived, MDP lawmaker Song Seok-chang called the president the "incarnation of evil" -- coining a term used earlier this week by state-run media in North Korea.
The statement caused an uproar in the legislature. Although President Kim expressed regret at the remarks, some opposition lawmakers and media commentators have called for firmer action against Song.
"When an Assembly member with the ruling party speaks about the head of state of an ally on the eve of his official visit, and when he does it on the main floor of the country's parliamentary body using language reserved for enemies, it is a complete disregard for diplomacy and it hurts the reputation of both the Assembly and the country," commented the Chosun Ilbo daily.
The paper said it was of even more concern that there appeared to be a degree of sympathy for Song's views within the ruling party.
The conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) demanded an explanation for Song's comments.
GNP leader Lee Hoi-chang, a leading contender in presidential elections later this year, has been more supportive of Bush's approach the North.
On a recent visit to Washington, where he met senior administration officials, Lee expressed reservations about Kim's "sunshine" policy, which some South Koreans regard as too forgiving and too generous to the North.
Robert Einhorn, a senior advisor in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this week that Bush's warning to potentially hostile states that the U.S. would not stand by while they acquire WMD capability was both "clear" and "necessary."
"For several years, some members of the international community have grown complacent toward the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems," Einhorn said.
But he cautioned that if the U.S. wanted to keep the possibility of engagement with North Korea open, it had to take into account how the tough message would be received.
"With a deeply suspicious and isolated government like North Korea's, there is a risk that the current ambiguous posture will be viewed not as an opening move in a tough negotiation but as a confirmation of its worst fear that the Bush administration is implacably hostile ... If North Koreans reach that conclusion, it will be very hard to get them to the negotiating table."
Einhorn said Washington should "fine tune" its message.
"Without ruling out any options, the Bush administration should state clearly that diplomatic engagement is its preferred option and the one best suited to resolving the issues dividing North Korea and the United States."
It should also reiterate the "anywhere, any time, no preconditions" talks offer, and unambiguously endorse South Korea's reconciliation policy, he added.
South Koreans Worry About Bush's Policy Toward North (Feb. 7, 2002)
Bush's 'Axis Of Evil' Remarks Resonate In Korea, North And South (Jan. 31, 2002)
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.