Posted Thursday, Nov 16, 2006; 9:18 p.m.
Bush opens five-day Asian tour with warning of North Korean threat
The president opened a five-day tour of Asia with a warning that North Korea poses a major risk of selling its nuclear technology or bomb-grade fuel to other nations or to terrorists.
SINGAPORE -- President Bush opened a five-day tour of Asia today with a warning that North Korea poses a significant risk of selling its nuclear technology or bomb-grade nuclear fuel to other nations or to terror groups. Mr. Bush urged Asian nations to enforce United Nations sanctions against North Korea.
Meanwhile, American officials in Hanoi, where foreign ministers gathered today before the opening of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting on Friday, said that the United States is working with China and other Asian allies to press North Korea to take a visible step towards dismantling its nuclear program.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking with reporters in Hanoi, said that the coming resumption of long-running six-way talks with North Korea over its nuclear program would be pointless without shows of good faith from both sides.
Together, the statements by Mr. Bush and Ms. Rice suggest how much the issue of North Korea’s newly acquired nuclear-power status is likely to dominate the APEC meeting, which usually focuses on trade issues.
Speaking at the National University of Singapore, Mr. Bush warned the North Korean government against aiding other nations, particularly in the Middle East, in their pursuit of nuclear weapons. He said there would be unspecified “grave consequences” if North Korea was ever caught shipping nuclear technology or weaponry abroad.
“The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action,” Mr. Bush said. “For the sake of peace, it is vital that the nations of this region send a message to North Korea that the proliferation of nuclear technology to hostile regimes or terrorist networks will not be tolerated.”
Mr. Bush did not directly mention Iran, but that was clearly the potential customer he had in mind.
Other senior administration officials have said in recent months that they are looking for evidence that North Korea is seeking to expand its dealings with Iran beyond the sale of missile technology. In a recent interview, Ms. Rice said that she had seen no such evidence that the two countries have cooperated in the nuclear arena.
Mr. Bush also sought to reassure American allies and trading partners that the United States was not on the retreat in the Pacific, just as China is rapidly expanding its influence throughout the region.
“In this new century, America will remain engaged in Asia, because our interests depend on the expansion of freedom and opportunity in this region,” Mr. Bush said. “We hear voices calling for us to retreat from the world and close our doors to these opportunities. These are the old temptations of isolationism and protectionism, and America must reject them.”
In these comments Mr. Bush appeared to be addressing members of his own Republican party who helped kill a deal that would have given control over several American seaport terminal operations to DP World, a company based in Dubai.
Many Republicans have also expressed reservations about free-trade agreements, even as the Bush administration has been pushing to revive stalled global trade talks.
In Hanoi, speaking after a breakfast meeting with some of her counterparts, Ms. Rice refused to say specifically what steps the United States and China are urging North Korea to take before the six-nation talks on its nuclear program resume, saying she did not want to negotiate in the press.
But other American officials said that the steps she had in mind could include the dismantling of one of the North’s many nuclear facilities and the readmission of international inspectors.
The officials said they would like to see the dismantling begin with a facility like North Korea’s five-megawatt reactor, which is continuing to produce nuclear fuel, or its plutonium reprocessing center, where spent reactor fuel can be turned into material for weapons.
“I do think that after setting off a nuclear test, the North Koreans need to do something to show they’re committed to denuclearization that goes beyond words and just saying that they’re committed to denuclearization,” Ms. Rice said, “because after having set off a nuclear test, I think there’s some skepticism about that.”
Ms. Rice acknowledged that the United States will have to give a little to get a little. “There are principles on both sides, on denuclearization, and on movement toward the easing of tensions in economic and other relations” she said. “So I think, obviously, people will want to look at both.”
But the main topic on the minds of American officials was on how to put enough pressure on the regime in Pyongyang to get real results out of the next round of negotiations.
That has been the rub in the disarmament talks, which have dragged on fitfully and inconclusively for several years before North Korea started boycotting them more than a year ago, angry over newly imposed American financial sanctions. Two weeks ago, China announced that the six-nation talks, which als include Russia, Japan and South Korea, would reconvene soon; American officials said at the time that the next meeting was likely in November or December.
But Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader, is now known to have accelerated his pursuit of nuclear weapons even while his envoys participated in earlier rounds of talks. .Some analysts suspect that he has agreed to resume the talks now simply to forestall tough enforcement of the international sanctions prompted by Pyongyang’s nuclear test and recent missile tests, and to persuade China and South Korea to ease his government’s growing economic woes.
In fact, earlier this week, South Korea said it would not join a United States-led effort to intercept North Korean ships suspected of carrying unconventional weapons or related cargo. Even after the nuclear test, the government in Seoul has continued to hew to its policy of avoiding confrontation with the North.
Asked about that policy in Hanoi, Ms. Rice refused to publicly criticize South Korea. “Their context is different,” she said, later adding that she did not have “any doubt that they are committed, and know they have to stay committed.”
Privately, though, American officials have expressed frustration with South Korea, and say they are well aware of growing skepticism about whether the talks will succeed.
“The issue is, we really need this next round to be successful” and yield concrete results, one senior United States official said. “We can’t emerge saying we set up a working group.”
Given that friction, a face-to-face encounter between Mr. Bush and President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea at the APEC meeting may well turn testy. Mr. Roh has been vocal in criticizing what he has called a one-sided American approach to North Korea.
American officials say that Mr. Roh told them in Washington before the nuclear test that a detonation by the North would “change everything” in inter-Korean relations. But now that it has happened, one of Mr. Bush’s senior national security aides said in Washington before the president left, “It seems to have changed almost nothing.”
Mr. Bush arrived this morning here in Singapore, one of Asia’s most prosperous corners, and spent the day sightseeing and meeting with local leaders, including Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. The president’s visit is seen as a gauge of whether his influence has been diminished by his party’s sweeping defeat in the midterm elections last week.
Stopping over in Moscow Wednesday while his aircraft refueled, Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, had a 90-minute visit with President Vladimir V. Putin, which the White House described as largely social.
But it included some exchanges about whether Russia would support a United Nations Security Council draft resolution imposing sanctions on Iran for its continued defiance regarding its nuclear program.
On the way here, Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, acknowledged that the two countries were still far apart on such sanctions.
“The issue is just what should be in the resolution,” Mr. Hadley said after talking to his counterpart, Igor Ivanoff, in Moscow. “It’s a little bit like sausage making — it’s not pretty, and a lot of it spills out into the public. But I think the international community has held together on this issue, and I think we will again.”
Russia has deep economic ties to Iran’s nuclear power program: it is the supplier of nuclear reactors that are now under construction there. And Russia has expressed reluctance to impose sanctions, saying they would undercut efforts to reach a negotiated settlement. Bush administration officials make little secret of their frustration that Iran is still enriching uranium as the year draws to a close.
Asked about seeking Iran’s help with ending violence in Iraq while pressing it at the same time on the nuclear issue, Mr. Hadley said the administration had no intention of easing up on one to win Iran’s help on the other.
“There’s not a tradeoff between the two,” he said. “Iran ought to have an interest in having a unified and stable Iraq.”
In Moscow, the Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, described the meeting of the presidents and their wives as brief but “very positive.” He said that among the subjects they took up was an agreement, already announced, for Russia to enter the World Trade Organization. When Mr. Bush travels to Hanoi on Friday, he will face a more difficult trade issue: Congress balked at final passage of a bill that would normalize trade relations with Vietnam.
Mr. Bush had hoped to have that bill approved and ready to bring with him; instead, Mr Hadley said, he will tell the Vietnamese that he believed the problems in Congress over the matter — some with Bush’s own Republican allies — will soon be resolved.