President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun vowed yesterday that they "will not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea" and threatened the use of "further steps" to deal with the Stalinist regime's nuclear ambitions.
Standing shoulder to shoulder in the White House Rose Garden, the two leaders pledged to work toward a peaceful solution to the standoff with Pyongyang, which continues its bellicose rhetoric against its neighbor and the United States.
"I assured the president we will continue to work to achieve a peaceful solution," Mr. Bush said.
"We're making good progress toward achieving that peaceful resolution of the issue of the Korean Peninsula in regards to North Korea."
Still, the two leaders said in a joint communique after their 45-minute Oval Office meeting "that increased threats to peace and stability on the peninsula would require consideration of further steps," although they "expressed confidence that a peaceful resolution can be achieved."
White House officials last night would not elaborate on the meaning of "further steps."
The statement was more explicitly aggressive than what Mr. Roh had said in an interview in Seoul last week with The Washington Times.
Before leaving the peninsula, Mr. Roh said he would call for Mr. Bush to use only peaceful means to disarm North Korea, exempting it from the U.S. doctrine of pre-emptive attacks on rogue states developing weapons of mass destruction.
"I would like to discuss with President Bush that the circumstances on the Korean Peninsula may not be appropriate for applying this principle from the very beginning," Mr. Roh told The Times. "The mere thought of a military conflict with North Korea is a calamity for us."
But a senior administration official said Mr. Roh "never asked" Mr. Bush to rule out the military option.
"You can't take options off the table," a senior administration official said after the appearance by the two leaders.
In their statement, the two "noted with serious concern North Korea's statements about reprocessing, possession of nuclear weapons, and its threat to demonstrate or transfer these weapons."
"They stressed that escalatory moves by North Korea will only lead to its greater isolation and a more desperate situation in the North. Both leaders reiterated their strong commitment to work for the complete, verifiable and irreversible elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons program through peaceful means based on international cooperation," the communique said.
The Oval Office meeting was the first between Mr. Bush and Mr. Roh and marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. Mr. Bush had a notably cool relationship with Mr. Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung, but he appeared to enjoy Mr. Roh's company.
"I have found the president to be an easy man to talk to," said Mr. Bush, who likes to use his meetings with foreign leaders to size up their characters and often makes clear whether they have connected or whether they remain distant.
"He expresses his opinion very clearly, and he's easy to understand. One thing is for certain, we will work to have the best possible relations between our countries, and it's based upon close consultation on a wide variety of issues," he said.
Before a dinner at the White House residence, Mr. Bush took Mr. Roh, a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln and author of a book on the 16th president, on a tour, including a stop at the Lincoln Bedroom.
Mr. Bush also showed Mr. Roh one of the original copies of the Gettysburg Address, as well as a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Mr. Roh, 56, expressed his own connection with Mr. Bush, also 56.
"In a very short period of time, we have smoothly reached an agreement. It was not even necessary to tell President Bush all the logic that I had in mind to convince him before I came here. President Bush had an accurate idea of what concerned me and what were my hopes. And I second what President Bush has just stated," the Korean leader said in the brief Rose Garden appearance before reporters.
Mr. Roh sought to use his first U.S. visit, which also included trips to Wall Street and the Lincoln Memorial, to dissuade Mr. Bush of impressions that he is anti-American. The effort was a hard sell, given how Mr. Roh capitalized on anti-U.S. demonstrations in South Korea in his election campaign last year.
But on his trip here, the new leader quickly staked out a tough position on North Korea. On Tuesday, he said, "North Korea must give up its nuclear program without fail so it can become a responsible member of the international community."
Before meeting Mr. Bush, Mr. Roh met with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. In his meeting with Mr. Cheney, the two discussed the presence of 37,000 U.S. troops along the demilitarized zone between the Koreas.
"American forces were important in the past and are important now," Mr. Roh said after his lunch with Mr. Cheney, according to a South Korean statement. The vice president "said U.S. troops should stay in South Korea because they guarantee security in the region," it said.
But the two countries agreed to pull U.S. troops out of the garrison at the Seoul suburb of Yongsan in an effort to consolidate American forces now scattered over about 100 camps and bases across South Korea.
Before the talks, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice made clear there would be no softening of the administration's line toward Pyongyang.
"Our policy toward North Korea can really be summed up as follows: No one should be willing to give in to the kind of blackmail that the North Koreans have been practicing on the world for a number of years now, especially not the United States," she said.
But Miss Rice did say Washington had not ruled out entering new talks with the communist state, despite what she called North Korean posturing at a three-way encounter, also involving China, in Beijing last month.
"That is not the spirit in which we would expect to conduct any further talks, but we are not fearful of talks, and if we believe that they are useful at some point in time, we would be more than willing to re-enter them."