Less than a month after calling North Korea an "axis of evil" state that feeds terrorism, President Bush journeyed to the barbed-wire border of that state. He looked through binoculars at military outposts on the other side of a demilitarized zone so active that American soldiers here joke: "There's no 'D' in the DMZ."
As the White House defends the controversial "axis of evil" categorization, the president is slowly elaborating on his views concerning a regime so reclusive and harsh that even South Korean security officials say they know little of what transpires across the volatile border.
After his "axis" comment about its northern neighbor, South Korea is proving a diplomatic test for the president. His visit here was prefaced by fighting in the Korean parliament, by several large student protests on the streets of Seoul in recent days, and by a surprisingly bitter rift between Bush and European leaders for what they charge is an "absolutist," "simplistic," and "arrogant" approach.
Here yesterday, in tones that were mild but firm, the president made a distinction between the people of North Korea, and its government. He pointed out that the US is the largest contributor of food to North Korea, a state perpetually on the brink of famine. He reiterated that the US is "prepared to talk with the North," and has no plans to invade the North, and he pushed for a "unified" Korea.
But at the same time, Bush clearly laid blame for a lack of peace between the two sides on North Korean president Kim Jong Il.
"My comments about evil were toward a regime, toward a government - not toward the North Korean people," the president said at a joint press conference with Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean president. "I will not change my opinion on the man, on Kim Jong Il, until he frees his people ... until he proves to the world that he's got a good heart, that he cares about the people that live in his country."
On what was the most sensitive issue as Bush arrived in Seoul, the US president offered clear "support" for the "sunshine policy" of South Korean leader Kim. Yet it was a carefully finessed support.
Kim Dae Jung won a Nobel Peace Prize two years ago for a trip to Pyongyang that led to openings between North and South, including families separated by 50 years of a cold war standoff, and the opening of some limited tourism. Critics say Bush's approach will further enrage and isolate North Korea, and drive a spike through Kim Dae Jung's five years of patient effort.
While Bush supported the sunshine policy, he also stated indirectly that the policy was not working, and blamed Kim Jong Il for its lack of progress.
"I made it very clear to [Kim of the South] that I support his sunshine policy," Bush said. "And I'm disappointed that the other side, the North Koreans, will not accept the spirit of the sunshine policy." After two years, the North Korean Kim has not yet fulfilled his promise of a reciprocal visit, after the South Korean Kim met him in Pyongyang.
Bush pointed out that of 10 million Korean families that could be unified, only 3,600 have been. Moreover, recent Korean press reports indicate that the tourism effort by Seoul to the North has bankrupted the company that started it. The tours are expensive, and are limited to the visit of a single revered mountain in North Korea. Tourists are heavily guarded by agents as they climb the mountain, and they are not allowed to criticize communism or North Korea's political system while being hosted.
At a train station built on the border by the South, but dormant since North Korea has not built one on its side, Bush stated that "Korean grandparents should be free to spend their final years with those they love. Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed.
"We're prepared to talk with the North about steps that would lead to a better future .... but like this road left unbuilt, our offer has gone unanswered."
Today Bush leaves for Beijing. That visit is expected to be far less tense, since both Beijing and Washington have been working toward friendlier, warmer relations. Yet differences with China may emerge. In a frank response to a reporter who asked Bush if he planned to "try to persuade" the Chinese to extend more rights to political prisoners, and to Christian activists who are being detained, the president replied:
"In my last visit with President Jiang, I shared with him my faith. I talked to him on very personal terms about my Christian beliefs. I explained to him that faith had an incredibly important part in my life...in the lives of all kinds of citizens, and that I would hope that he, as a president of a great nation, would understand the important role of religion in an individual's life."
By coincidence, Bush will arrive in Beijing on the 30th anniversary of US President Richard Nixon's epochal visit in 1972. Mr. Nixon's trip changed the world's geopolitical map. His "triangular policy" of opening to China while conducting détente with the Soviet Union further split Beijing and Moscow. It set the stage for improved ties between the US and China that roughly lasted until the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when China cracked down on a nascent democracy movement.
During this US presidential visit, China is expected to agree to control its weapons technology exports, allow an FBI office in Beijing, and release an unusually large number of political prisoners. Analysts say that, fresh from the Korean Peninsula, Bush may consult with President Jiang Zemin in the hope that China will use its considerable influence in North Korea to bring Kim Jong Il into some form of international dialogue. Unconfirmed reports have Kim visiting China this spring.