President George W. Bush took a hard line toward North Korea on Wednesday, saying he had no immediate plans to resume negotiations on ending its missile program and questioning whether it would honor such an accord.
In a meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, who hoped the new administration would quickly restart the talks begun under former President Bill Clinton, Bush also made clear that he viewed the reclusive, Communist state as a threat to U.S. security and that he was troubled by its weapons exports.
"We look forward to, at some point in the future, having a dialogue with the North Koreans but ... any negotiation would require complete verification," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office with Kim at his side.
"Part of the problem in dealing with North Korea is there's not very much transparency. We're not certain as to whether or not they're keeping all terms of all agreements," Bush added. "When you make an agreement with a country that is secretive, how are you aware as to whether or not they are keeping the terms of the agreement?"
Washington views Pyongyang as one of the main exporters of missile technology to the world and U.S. officials regularly cite it as one of the reasons for the United States to build a missile defense shield to ward off potential attacks.
While saying they support South Korea's "sunshine" policy of rapprochement with North Korea, Bush aides have suggested they remain deeply doubtful about whether North Korean leader Kim Jong-il would keep his word on any agreements.
A senior U.S. official said the Bush administration would conduct a review over the next several months of how the Clinton administration left the issue.
"Clearly I think some of the major questions had not been resolved. I think in part what we're dealing with here is a very 'Clintonesque' framework arrangement where members of the last administration could say that they were near an agreement" but left unresolved key issues, including verification, the official said.
PAPER OVER DIFFERENCES
Both sides tried to paper over their differences in public, with the South Korean leader saying he was grateful for Bush's support of his policy and saying he had not asked the United States to resume the missile talks with Pyongyang.
"On North Korea, yes, there are many problems that remain but President Bush has clearly expressed his strong support for our efforts to further the dialogue with North Korea," Kim told reporters.
"I do have some skepticism about the leader of North Korea but that's not going to preclude us from trying to achieve the common objective," Bush said, referring to the goal of bringing peace to the Korean peninsula.
North and South Korea technically remain at war following the end of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in an armed truce rather than a formal peace agreement. The United States has 37,000 troops in South Korea.
In the final months of his term, Clinton made progress toward an accord under which North Korea would have abandoned its long-range missile programs and halted its missile exports in return for foreign help with launching North Korean satellites. But he ran out of time to clinch a deal.
U.S. officials this week sent mixed signals about whether they planned to resume the missile talks.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters on Tuesday "We do plan to ... pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off," while a senior official who spoke anonymously stressed that a fundamental review was under way.
In an unusual step, Powell left the Oval Office meeting on Wednesday to tell reporters in a West Wing hallway that Bush had "forcefully made the point that we are undertaking a full review of our relationship with North Korea."
NO IMMINENT NEGOTIATIONS
"If there was some suggestion that imminent negotiations were about to begin, that is not the case," Powell said. "We'll be formulating our policies and in due course decide at what pace and when we engage but there is no hurry."
The secretary of state also took a markedly hard line toward the North Koreans, saying the United States had no choice but to view Pyongyang as a threat because of its conventional forces and its weapons of mass destruction.
"It's got a huge army poised on the border within artillery and rocket distance of South Korea," Powell said. "They still have weapons of mass destruction and missiles that can deliver those ... so we have to see them as a threat."
Former National Security Adviser Sandy Berger said the talks with Pyongyang during the Clinton administration had gone "further than ... anybody anticipated" and said he saw few risks to continuing the talks.
"There's nothing to lose, it seems to me, by determining whether Kim Jong-il is serious and whether we can achieve, through a verifiable agreement, a reduction of the threat," Berger told Reuters.
"There were gaps, with respect to issues of verification and other questions that are very important," he added. "But there certainly was enough on the table to see whether this could be completed."