LIMA (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao planned to discuss North Korea’s nuclear program on Friday evening as Asia Pacific leaders gathered for an annual economic summit amid the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.
Hundreds of protesters chanted anti-Bush slogans in a square in downtown Lima as he arrived, guarded by police with horses, riot gear and small tanks prepared to shoot water cannon at protesters if things got violent.
Six of the protesters wore orange coveralls with black bags on their heads and their hands tied behind their backs, representing inmates at Guantanamo, the controversial prison camp in Cuba where the United States holds terrorist suspects.
“Out Bush, undesirable foreigner,” chanted the protesters during a folk concert. They also burned a giant paper rat that had photos of Bush pasted on it.
Organizers said the protest would be peaceful and also plan a march on the U.S. Embassy on Saturday.
Experts said the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Lima, Peru, was unlikely to produce any major breakthroughs for the U.S. president but aides rejected any suggestion the trip was just a farewell bow by a leader with record low approval ratings.
“This is a serious meeting,” said Daniel Price, Bush’s adviser on international economic affairs, noting that the president’s long advocacy of free trade and open markets meshed well with APEC’s core mission.
“I don’t think this is a farewell ... but rather an opportunity for the president to continue to carry forward an affirmative agenda.”
Bush and Hu were to talk about encouraging North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and Bush also planned to meet with Japanese and South Korean leaders on Saturday.
Trade experts said the administration’s goals for APEC would be tempered by the fact that Bush will hand over power to President-elect Barack Obama on January 20.
“The president, I think, is going to be loath to sort of push his own agenda or this administration’s agenda with the moving trucks pulling up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” said Charles Freeman, a former assistant U.S. trade representative for China affairs.
The APEC gathering of 21 countries, which account for nearly half the world’s trade, “is an important meeting this time, particularly given the financial situation in the world,” Bush said in an interview with America TV of Peru.
He denied Latin America became a lower priority for his administration after the September 11 attacks.
Free-trade agreements with countries in the region and programs focusing on health and education showed the U.S. commitment to Latin America, he said. “The record speaks about our deep desire to be good neighbors and to have friends.”
Leaders of the Group of 20 developed and developing countries meeting in Washington last week called for a breakthrough in the troubled 7-year-old round of world trade talks by the end of 2008.
APEC leaders are expected to endorse that goal in their declaration on Sunday but the chairman of the agriculture negotiations in Geneva said on Friday the strong G20 statement had not any impact on the troubled negotiations so far.
“Zip, nada, nyet, null ... They ain’t changed their positions,” mediator Crawford Falconer told journalists with time quickly running out for a breakthrough this year.
North Korea accused Seoul on Friday of intentionally dragging ties on the unstable peninsula to a new low with a former South Korean leader saying relations may now stand on the brink of reconciliation or catastrophe.
Dennis Wilder, senior director for Asian affairs at the White House National Security Council, said he hoped that by the end of the APEC summit a meeting for six-party talks on North Korea would be scheduled with a goal for December.
China has been hosting the talks that also include Japan, Russia, South Korea, North Korea and the United States.
“Our primary goal is to get back to the negotiating table in Beijing,” Wilder told reporters traveling with Bush.
“We need to put in place in the six-party context the verification principles that we have worked out to a certain extent bilaterally with the North Koreans. We need that to be memorialized and codified at a six-party meeting,” he said.
North Korea has agreed to disable its Yongbyon nuclear plant, which makes weapons-grade plutonium, and to submit to inspections to verify its claims about its arms program. But Pyongyang, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, recently slowed the dismantling work, saying it was not receiving the promised compensation in a timely manner.
Bush will meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the APEC sidelines on Saturday. They will discuss the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia and Moscow’s opposition to U.S. plans to base a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Additional reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Bill Trott