PRESIDENT Bush will use his three-day visit to South Korea starting Sunday to turn up the heat on an old cold-war adversary.
He and South Korean President Roh Tae Woo plan to coordinate steps to ensure that the Stalinist regime in North Korea makes good a recent pledge to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection, South Korean officials say.
Trade issues between the United States and South Korea will be secondary to the question of how the two allies cope with a widely suspected North Korean plan to build a nuclear weapon, perhaps by 1993, by US estimates.
Despite close ties, the US and Seoul have diverged slightly on dealing with a North Korean nuclear threat. Some observers warn that President Roh, who leaves office in early 1993, may be eager to reconcile with the North on some issues without fully eliminating the nuclear threat.
Last November, South Korea rebuffed a US diplomatic initiative aimed at heightening pressure on the North by having the US, China, Japan, and Russia join talks on the Korean situation.
And in a speech last month, the US ambassador to Seoul, Donald Gregg, said South Korea should give more attention to settling the nuclear issue, but added that Seoul can decide the relative priorities of social and nuclear issues dividing the Koreas.
But Washington and Seoul did coordinate one successful diplomatic move to put the North on the defensive. Bush announced in September that he was withdrawing US tactical nuclear weapons overseas; three months later Roh stated that South Korea was free of such weapons.
The North, during formal talks with Seoul officials last year, has steadily dropped most conditions for signing an accord with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that would allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities.
But until such inspections take place, and the US is assured North Korea is not hiding aspects of its nuclear program from IAEA officials as Iraq did last year, then South Korean and US officials say they must keep up the pressure. Neither ally has ruled out a preemptive military strike against the North's nuclear facilities.
In another signal aimed at the North, Bush is expected to reaffirm the US security commitment to South Korea. On Monday, he speaks to the National Assembly, and later will visit US troops at Camp Casey, north of Seoul.
In November, as part of its initiative against the North, the US announced it would postpone a second partial withdrawal of troops from South Korea, previously scheduled for 1995. The first withdrawal of 7,000 of 43,000 US troops will be completed by 1993, but the next reduction of 6,000 is now on hold.
In a concession last week, Seoul met a long-standing North Korean demand by stating that it might cancel joint military exercises with the US scheduled for early 1992. Some critics in South Korea have warned that Roh should not link his campaign against the North's nuclear program with other issues.
During his visit, Bush is also expected to discuss reasons for keeping US troops in the South even after an end to the North's military threat or possible reunification. Many Seoul officials say they want US troops to stay in the country as a deterrent to the growing military might of Japan and China. Also, both North and South are in the middle of succession struggles that may heighten tensions on the peninsula.
"Obviously, we are living in the most dramatic moments in history, and there are some adjustments to make," says Kim Kyung Won, a former South Korean ambassador to the US.
Bush is also expected to press South Korea to further open its market to imports and to make concessions at the Uruguay Round of trade talks. Although the US enjoys a trade surplus with the South, it has criticized the Roh government for restricting consumer purchases of some imports and only limited opening of its financial markets. (Korean stock market, Page 8.)
"This is not the time for Korea to turn inward," warned US Trade Representative Carla Hills in a speech in Seoul two months ago. "We worry a bit that Korea's current frugality campaign [for consumers] could simply be an euphemism for protectionism," she said.
The most contentious trade issue, however, is over a US request for the South to open its rice market as a concession in the Uruguay Round talks. As in Japan, rice farmers have protested in the streets against the possibility of their government acting on the US request.
The government announced last month it would spend $48.2 billion to restructure its agriculture by the year 2001, a move seen as helping farmers survive a market opening.
More than three-quarters of South Korea's 7 million farmers grow rice, and most would face serious competition from imports of cheaper American rice.