WASHINGTON (Reuters) - South Korean President Lee Myung-bak will get a warm welcome on Friday when he sees President George W. Bush, who embraces the new, conservative president’s tough stand toward North Korea.
Lee, a former construction boss and mayor of Seoul who was sworn in on February 25, is the first South Korean president to be invited to Camp David, the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains.
There are many issues on the table, including a dispute over U.S. beef exports and the fate of a bilateral free trade pact.
South Korea’s Farm Ministry said on the eve of Lee’s meeting with Bush that Seoul had agreed to open its markets wider to U.S. beef, a move that clears a major hurdle stalling a landmark trade deal with Washington.
U.S. beef exports to South Korea have yet to fully resume since the United States found its first case of mad cow disease in 2003.
The key topic of discussion between the two leaders is the multilateral effort to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
U.S. officials have made clear Bush is more at ease with Lee’s harder line toward the poor, communist nation than he was with the relatively accommodating policies pursued by his two immediate predecessors.
Lee has said he will tie economic cooperation with the North to progress on denuclearization. Since his inauguration, the North has responded with a torrent of invective, including threats to reduce the South to ashes.
While acknowledging that Kim’s stance has had a “short term cost,” a senior Bush administration official said that “in the long run, this is clearly a far more reasonable policy.”
“One of the problems that the South ran into was that there were no consequences for bad behavior on the part of the North in the South’s old policy,” said the official, who spoke on condition that he not be named.
“The president will find himself more comfortable with this (new) policy of the South because the South is saying there are consequences and you North Koreans need to understand that,” he added. “If you are willing to move ahead with denuclearization ... there will be positive benefits to this and if you are not, it’ll make it harder to take advantage of the benefits.”
The Washington Post published an interview with Lee in which he noted the “belligerent and bellicose” statements from the North and said the two Koreas were going through a period of adjustment because of his new policies.
He also said he planned to propose North Korea and South Korea open liaison offices in their capitals to establish “ a permanent dialogue channel,” the newspaper reported.
The multilateral effort to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions is at a delicate stage as the United States seeks to coax a long overdue declaration of Pyongyang’s nuclear programs from its secretive leaders.
If it makes the declaration, the United States is expected to respond by easing two of the many sets of sanctions on North Korea — those flowing from its presence on the U.S. state sponsors list and from the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act.
The administration then hopes to make progress toward getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear facilities and toward abandoning all nuclear weapons and programs before Bush leaves office in January.
By all accounts, Bush — who has never met Lee — is more in sync with his views on North Korea than he was with the two previous South Korean presidents, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung.
Kim, a proponent of the “sunshine” policy of engagement with the North, had a disastrous initial meeting with Bush in 2001 when he pushed the U.S. president to continue former President Bill Clinton’s talks with North Korea.
Roh was viewed with some skepticism in Washington, both because he rode to power on a wave of anti-Americanism and because he continued Kim’s policy of engaging the North.
“Especially in comparison with visits by President Roh, the United States is very enthusiastic about Lee Myung-bak,” said Heritage Foundation South Korea expert Bruce Klingner.
“They welcome his emphasis on repairing the strained relations,” he added. “There is clearly a difference in tone from a president that says the U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea) alliance is the bedrock of South Korea’s security and from a president who said what’s wrong with being anti-American.”
Editing by Peter Cooney