Roh finds little solace in meeting with Bush
The good news from the first meeting between President Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun is that the U.S. president didn't humiliate his guest, as he did Roh's predecessor, Kim Dae-jung.
That earlier diplomatic disaster is usually attributed to a green American administration that had not yet settled on a Korea policy, although Bush's blunt rejection of the policies that had won Kim a Nobel Peace Prize was anything but ambivalent.
The problem with that explanation is that the Bush administration still is sharply divided over how to handle the North Korea problem.
Some commentators date Pyongyang's upsurge in nuclear activity and defiance from that embarrassing 2001 split. In any case, the White House was careful to avoid any hint of discord in this week's Bush-Roh meetings.
Diplomatic atmospherics aside, however, Roh's visit was only slightly more successful than that of Kim. Roh had come to Washington with just two requests:
A statement by Bush ruling out military action as a solution to the North's provocations. Instead, even before the two met, the White House insisted that option is still very much "on the table."
And it can't have been much comfort for Roh to hear that American military action will be a "last resort" in Korea. "Last resort," after all, was the operative words throughout the Iraq military buildup.
A delay, until the crisis is resolved, in the puzzling American insistence on the immediate reshuffling, and perhaps reduction, of its forces in Korea.
It makes sense to close Yongsan, the major military base near downtown Seoul. But Roh is understandably concerned that removing combat troops from the tense DMZ area, as planned, will send the wrong message to Pyongyang, and impede stability and business in the South.
Roh learned that the U.S. reshuffle will proceed, but he'll be kept in the loop.
Bush and Roh did agree that they "will not tolerate nuclear weapons" in North Korea, and they expressed "confidence that a peaceful resolution can be achieved." But Roh can't have been comforted by reports of bitter arguments within the Bush administration over how to prevent a starving, desperate North Korea from lashing out.
North Korea is somewhere between the first and last steps of the reprocessing of its 8,000 spent plutonium rods, which would give it the capability of targeting nuclear weapons at Japan or selling them on the open market.
It's alarming that the Bush administration appears unable to focus on a strategy to deal with this threat, far greater than Iraq. The Roh visit fails to paper that reality over.