Leaders Bush, Roh agree to strengthen ties

Saturday, December 21, 2002

SEOUL, South Korea -- Conversation between President Bush and South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun on Friday eased concerns that Roh's blunt criticism of the United States could damage ties with Washington.

Roh, whose election victory Thursday was helped by growing anti-Americanism among South Korean youth, spoke to Bush by phone. They agreed to boost bilateral ties and work for a peaceful resolution of North Korea's nuclear threat, Roh's office said.

Washington and Seoul both had worried that the new South Korean leader, known for his directness, might endanger relations with South Korea's closest ally.

During his campaign, Roh complained that what he called Bush's overbearing approach to North Korea was hurting South Korea's efforts to reconcile with the communist state. He said he wouldn't "kowtow" to American leaders.

Roh, who has never visited the United States, also accepted an invitation from Bush to visit the White House soon after his inauguration in late February.

Roh once said, "I am not going to go to the United States just to have pictures taken with some American leaders. I will go there only when I have some business to do."

Such blunt remarks led his critics to brand him a radical with a dangerous view on Washington's role in Korean security. But it also helped Roh win voter support. The election took place widespread anti-American sentiment, especially among young Koreans angered by what they considered preferential treatment for the 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

"President-elect Roh and President Bush agreed to work closely together for peace on the Korean Peninsula and strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance," the statement from Roh's office said.

Bush and Roh also agreed to exchange visits by their aides before the South Korean leader's inauguration, it said.

The two spoke after Bush called Roh to congratulate him on his election Thursday. Roh narrowly defeated opposition candidate Lee Hoi-chang, who was critical of the current government's "sunshine" policy of engaging North Korea. Lee's tough stance on the communist neighbor cost him support among young voters who viewed him as too closely aligned with U.S. policy.

Roh, a 56-year-old human rights lawyer, has said he wants to put the U.S.-South Korean relationship on a more even footing and pursue a "leading" role in defusing tension over North Korea's nuclear threat, rather than "obeying U.S. policy."

On the day after his election, Roh's comments already took a more moderate tone.

In his first official news conference, Roh said Friday he will build on outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae-jung's efforts to engage the North. He also said he would closely cooperate with the United States in resolving concerns about North Korea's nuclear development program.

"South Korea's relations with North Korea, the United States and other countries will not be much different from the Kim Dae-jung government's policy," Roh said.

The White House had earlier said Bush "warmly congratulates" Roh, as the State Department shrugged off Roh's tough talk -- "made in the heat of the campaign."

On Friday, Roh also said ties between South Korea and the United States must "mature and advance."

He said he would push for changes in the Status of Forces Agreement, the legal code governing the U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea.

An anti-U.S. outcry erupted after the acquittals in U.S. military courts of two American soldiers charged with negligent homicide in the road deaths of two South Korean girls.

The soldiers were cleared of the charge, but South Koreans believed the trials were unfair and that the soldiers should have been tried in a South Korean court. U.S. military officials apologized repeatedly for the deaths.

South Korea, the United States and their allies are trying to put diplomatic pressure on North Korea, which has said it will revive a frozen nuclear program previously suspected of being used to make weapons.

U.S. officials have ruled out talks with the North unless it abandons its nuclear ambitions, including a separate nuclear program based on uranium enrichment. Roh favors more aggressive overtures for dialogue with the North.

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