Bush and Lee talk T-bones and bombs
SEOUL - The two conservative presidents had heard the "compromise" word so often when it came to North Korea's coming clean on its nuclear inventory that they decided to dance around the issue.
That was the net result, at least on that unpleasant topic, of two days of talks in which US President George W Bush flattered South Korea's Lee Myung-bak by making him the first Korean president ever invited to the presidential retreat at Camp David in the Maryland woods north of Washington, DC.
If the US and North Korean nuclear envoys have already agreed on a secret deal that waffles on North Korea's listing all its nuclear activities, neither Lee nor Bush was going to spoil the atmosphere by endorsing such a sign of weakness.
The reason for avoiding a commitment on what they're going to do about North Korea's stall tactics seemed clear. Lee has been adopting what he calls a "pragmatic" policy toward North Korea in contrast to the Sunshine approach of his two left-leaning predecessors, and he didn't want to appear to be backing down on his first overseas mission.
That should have seemed just fine by the equally conservative Bush, except that Condoleezza Rice's State Department for the past few years has been temporizing with North Korea on the theory that's how to get the North really to abandon its nuclear program.
That strategy was driven in part by South Korean pressure, first under Kim Dae-jung, the author of Sunshine, and then under Lee's predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, for the US to get away from the confrontational approach of Bush's first term and go along with South Korea's desire for reconciliation.
As the ruckus over North Korea's reluctance to say publicly that they've been working on developing warheads with enriched uranium has made clear, the Lee government just doesn't care for the secret memorandum drafted by US envoy Christopher Hill and North Korea's Kim Kye-gwan. Apparently, all North Korea need do, under this still unannounced deal, is say "we understand" what the US is saying while admitting nothing.
Lee especially doesn't like this idea when it makes it appear as if he does not mean it when he demands "reciprocity" from the North along with "verification" of whatever it does about disabling and dismantling its program.
The US may insist there's no other way to move past the list issue and get on with the rest of the thorny process of North Korea abandoning its nuclear program. And South Korea may have little choice but to go along, especially if Lee hopes to make good on his "Vision 3000" promise - that is, a program to elevate the average income of North Koreans to $3,000 a year.
Lee's skepticism, however, came across at Camp David when he warned that failure to verify North Korea's nuclear declaration, whatever it contains, would be "disastrous" and that acceptance of a "temporary achievement" would fail to solve "long-term problems".
South Korea leaders are convinced, moreover, that North Korea, by negotiating with the US, is trying to "look over our shoulder", and they swear it won't work. Bush held off on attempting to ram the contents of the secret memorandum down Lee's throat, saying it does look as if the North Koreans want to "stall" but he's still "hopeful" and will "make a judgment" on whether North Korea is living up to its promises.
That remark, hardly a commitment, leaves room for an interpretation under which the US would settle for less than a complete list from North Korea, including whatever it did to help Syria build the facilities that were bombed last year by Israel. Neither Bush nor Lee talked publicly about the aces the US holds - removal of North Korea from the US State Department's list of "terrorist" countries and lifting of economic sanctions, a prelude to another infusion of economic aid, including much needed fuel.
Bush and Lee were on much safer ground when it came to happy talk about chances the of ratification of the free trade agreement (FTA)reached last year, after a year and a half of extremely difficult talks.
Korea's National Assembly is expected to approve the FTA after much debate. Lee's Grand National Party has a small, but crucial, majority of 153 of the 299 seats, and should find support among two small conservative groupings as well as a few conservative independents.
The much more difficult issue will be the response of the US Congress in a presidential election year when the two leading candidates of the Democratic Party nomination both oppose a FTA for the perceived threat to American workers from imports.
Bush, no doubt to keep the FTA from becoming a headline-grabbing campaign issue, said he's hoping for ratification by the end of this year - a deadline that his administration can try to make in the weeks between the November election and the Christmas holidays.
The chance for serious tension at the Bush-Lee summit was removed when Korean and American negotiators agreed in the final hours beforehand on a deal for South Korea to open up its beef market to US beef imports. South Korea now will accept boned US beef - ribs and T-bones - as long as the cattle are less than 30 months old.
The deal on beef means the US can resume shipments that were cut off entirely several years ago after the discovery of mad cow disease in one American cow. The market opened up to bone-free beef last year but closed again after X-ray scrutiny revealed bone chips in the first few shipments.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Korea was ecstatic about the beef deal. Several hours after hearing about it, the chamber produced a statement expressing confidence that "the US agriculture industry and US business community will now come out in full force and work hard" to make sure FTA makes its way through Congress successfully.
AmCham president William Oberlin personally applauded "the leadership and courage that President Lee has shown" and urged the US Congress to ratify the FTA "as soon as possible". But controversy looms even as beef shipments begin next month to arrive in Korea, once the third-largest market for US beef.
American motor vehicle manufacturers cannot believe they will find it all that much easier to ship US cars to South Korea after tariffs and non-tariff barriers are eased, and they fear an onslaught of Korean cars onto the American market. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, among others, also doubt if the Korean drug market will be that much easier to penetrate than it is now.
Lee wasted no time dashing hopes for a revision of the FTA that might assuage some of the fears. As far as he was concerned, he said, the deal was done and no more changes were needed or even possible.
The US and South Korea face other sensitive issues on the level of South Korean support for the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on US troop strength in South Korea. Bush brushed aside the contentious question of the Korean military contribution in the Middle East by saying he didn't view it as a "litmus test" of the US-Korean relationship.
South Korea may be more prone to cooperate in the US if the American side addresses some of their deepest concerns about security vis-a-vis the North. Easy though it is to ignore the rhetoric from Pyongyang, a showdown is possible if Lee insists on conditions on the nuclear issue and aid for the North's starving people.
Under the circumstances, the South Koreans attach some urgency to their plea for the US to stop reducing the number of American troops, now down to 28,500, and don't care for the plan for a South Korean to take command of all forces in Korea in event of a second Korean war.
South Korea, meanwhile, gets one big consolation prize. The US is going to waive the visa requirement for South Koreans visiting the US.
That means any South Korean can go to the US for 90 days without a visa. With 2.5 million Koreans already in America, including those who have become US citizens or hold green cards, the visa waiver may offer evidence of the enduring nature of the relationship.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.