Bush's tough talk in the land of reticence

Today the US president heads to South Korea, within earshot of the 'axis of evil,' as all Asia listens.

As President George Bush visits South Korea today, and then China later this week, officials in the region are on the edge of their seats.

They wonder: Will he be the same hip-shootin', plain-talkin' Texas politician they see on TV?

In Asia, style and semantics often make up the substance of politics. Words are face-saving veneers, artful diplomatic screens. No one speaks directly. Relationships are built on ambiguity.

At home, the US president has burnished his image as a cowboy Churchill - strident, dividing good and evil in black and white terms. As Secretary of State Colin Powell puts it, "What the president has said is, 'I'm calling it the way it is.' He did it in a very straightforward, direct, realistic way that tends to, you know, jangle people's nerves."

But Asian leaders worry how that tone will bounce around in the bell jars of their own regions, if Bush goes bellicose.

In the past two years, North Korea has gone from being a "rogue state" to a "state of concern." And now, as part of his war on terrorism, President Bush has declared North Korea part of an "axis of evil."

In South Korea, "people have been obsessed with the 'axis of evil' for weeks," says an American diplomat.

South Korean students this week briefly occupied and trashed the American Chamber of Commerce office here - shouting that Bush's hard line toward the North will only heighten tensions. So far on the Asia jaunt, Bush has not mentioned the "axis" word. Rather, he suggested that "freedom-loving countries" will help "change the behavior" of countries that support terror.

In China, leaders were shocked last spring when Bush said the US will "do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. For the Chinese, that was far too direct, wrecking the subtle ambiguities they prefer as they try to reclaim Taiwan.

"[The] Chinese are petrified that Bush is going to come here and actually say what he believes," whether on human rights or Taiwan, a European scholar says. "They are worried he's going to say a few simple things about Taiwan, and raise the idea that China is communist, and that will just be the worst thing."

After eight years of dealing with the Clinton administration, Pacific nations are still adjusting to the very different policies and style of Bush.

Whereas Clinton had begun leaning toward China as the main rising economic force in North Asia, Bush, especially in his speech before the Japanese Diet yesterday, is putting Japan firmly in the No. 1 ally spot.

Clinton called China a "partner." Bush has called China a "competitor."

Where Clinton was on the verge of acting as a negotiator between North and South Korea, the Bush administration expressed early skepticism of Kim Jong Il's cult-like regime and has now blacklisted it.

Where Clinton appeared to Beijing to vaguely sympathize with its claims on Taiwan - China's paramount issue - Bush has made it clear that America will defend Taiwan. (As Bush travels through Asia this week, Washington and Taipei are holding high-level military talks.)

The Chinese, moreover, once Clinton began to engage China, loved the former president's voluminous verbiage. Clinton's famed "therapeutic," we-can-work-this-out style of speaking, usually delivered in long paragraphs, allowed Beijing to read its own interpretation into whatever Clinton seemed to say, experts say. The Clinton administration policy of engagement with China also seemed to delink human rights with economic policies. In his second term, Clinton rarely went on a soap box for political or religious prisoners.

It is yet to be heard what Bush's message in China will be. On Friday, the president will give a speech at Qinghua University and take questions from students. But by no means do Chinese want to hear Bush say something like "Taiwan is a country," or "Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian." They would prefer he support Beijing's "one China principle" clearly.

In Korea today, Bush will speak at the demilitarized zone, only 30 miles from Seoul, where, at the so-called "last outpost of the cold war," 1.1 million North Korean troops are deployed in forward positions. Bush has called the DMZ "the most dangerous place on earth."

The US leader will also make comments at an old train station that used to be a primary link in the peninsula, which was separated by a war half a century ago.

Some analysts here feel the words Bush uses could determine whether South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's "sunshine policy" of rapprochement with his reclusive counterpart, Kim Jong Il - will remain viable. If Bush slams North Korea hard, it could trigger an inflamed reaction from Pyongyang, which could permanently disable the already tenuous policy.

Just two days ago, Kim Jong Il celebrated his 60th birthday - considered a major event in a Korean male's life. (New flags are fluttering along the DMZ, and North Korean officials unveiled a huge inscription of Kim's name, with letters 112 feet high, on one side of Korea's venerable Mt. Kumkang.)

To be attacked verbally in the days after the birthday could dash any hope of Kim Jong Il's visiting the South - and could nullify the Nobel prize-winning peace efforts of South's Korea's Kim, who will leave office in a year.

"We fail to see where the 'axis of evil' speech came from," says Jung-Hoon Lee, an international relations professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.

"For Bush, this is about an international war against terror," the professor says. "But most Koreans aren't looking at a large picture, we are a little parochial. What Bush ought to tell us is about the large picture, and why this is good for South Korea."

In recent days, North Korea's strictly controlled state media has kept up a steady propaganda barrage against the US leader, calling him the head of an "empire of evil" and "the most bellicose and heinous" US president ever.

• Material from the wire services was used in this report.

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