Bush consults partners on North Korea strategy

Saturday, November 18th 2006, 8:42 pm
By: News On 6

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) Lobbying world leaders, President Bush sought China's support Sunday for pressuring long-defiant North Korea to prove it is serious about dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

``China is a very important nation and the United States believes strongly that by working together we can help solve problems such as North Korea and Iran,'' Bush said as he sat down for talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Like North Korea, Iran also is suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons.

Later in the day Bush also was to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Bush used a summit of Pacific Rim countries to consult individually with leaders of the four other nations engaged with North Korea in nuclear disarmament talks, stalled for more than a year but now on the verge of resumption. Those talks were expected to win endorsement from all 21 participants in the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

Talking with Hu, Bush gently addressed difficult trade disputes between Washington and Beijing. The U.S. trade deficit with China is on its way to easily surpassing last year's $202 billion record.

``With as much commerce between our countries as there is, there's going to be trade difficulties,'' Bush said, ``but nevertheless we both adopt a spirit of mutual respect and the desire to work through our problems for the common good of our peoples.''

Bush applauded Hu for trying to move China's economy toward a ``nation of consumers and not savers, which will inure to the benefit of our manufacturers, both large and small, and our farmers as well.''

Hu, the host of their meeting, proudly told Bush that trade is expanding between the two countries, referring to reports from the United States showing U.S. exports to China up 35 percent in the first seven months of this year.

``I'm pleased to see real progress in China-U.S. relations since our meeting in St. Petersburg, (Russia) in July,'' Hu said.

In this communist country, Bush made a pointed effort to encourage religious tolerance. He and his wife, Laura, attended services at Cua Bac Church, a concrete basilica built by the French more than a century ago.

Just ahead of Bush's trip, the United States dropped Vietnam from a list of countries said to severely violate their people's religious freedoms.

Bush said he was pleased to spend a ``moment to converse with God. ... We were touched by the simplicity and the beauty of the moment. We appreciate very much the congregation for allowing us to come and worship with them.''

``A whole society is a society which welcomes basic freedoms and there's no more basic freedom than the freedom to worship as you see fit,'' Bush said.

The president and first lady shook hands with a few dozen choir members standing on cobblestones outside the church. He urged all nations to feel comfortable in saying to their people, ``If you feel like praising God, you're allowed to do so in any way you see fit.''

Nearly two weeks after election losses weakened his presidency, Bush faced questions from summit partners about the Democratic takeover of Congress and the message of disapproval about the Iraq war.

``He, of course, reassured them that, in terms of the foreign policy of the country, he was firm in his views and would be continuing that foreign policy along current lines,'' said National Security Adviser Steve Hadley.

Bush on Saturday explored North Korea strategy with Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, a hard-liner toward Pyongyang, and with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who has reservations about the U.S. approach.

Afterward, Bush plunged back into nuclear diplomacy, first with China, which exerts more influence on North Korea than any other. Besides rising trade tensions between their countries, Bush and Hu also were expected to discuss U.S. concerns about China's big military budget.

While Bush and Putin have sharp differences, they are celebrating an agreement that would pave the way for Russia to join the World Trade Organization.

To Bush's delight, China and Russia support U.N. sanctions against North Korea for conducting a nuclear test Oct. 9 in defiance of world appeals. But Washington is worried that support for carrying out the sanctions might be weakened by North Korea's declaration that it is willing to return to the stalled disarmament talks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who stressed that the world must act firmly but ``extremely cautiously'' in its approach to the North Korean nuclear program, said the summit statement to be issued Sunday would not go beyond, and would in fact repeat, the recent U.N. Security Council resolution on North Korea.

Aside from church, Bush has had virtually no public appearances in Vietnam or contact with locals. Hadley suggested the president was getting a feel for the country by watching people from the windows of his armored limousine as it shuttled him around town. ``We're in the midst of the Vietnamese people all the time,'' Hadley said.

Focused on economic problems, APEC leaders pledged major steps to resurrect WTO talks, which collapsed in July in a dispute over agricultural subsidies between the United States and Europe. They promised to make deeper reductions in farm subsidies, widen market access for agricultural goods and cut tariffs.

In his one-on-one diplomacy, Bush explored how to proceed in the negotiations with North Korea.

Hadley said the North Koreans ``cannot come back just to talk,'' but must show they are prepared to implement a year-old agreement to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and aid.

``There needs to be concrete steps toward the implementation of that agreement,'' he said. ``Now, what those steps will be is obviously something that will be discussed among the five of the six-party talks.''

Officials suggested that one way for North Korea to show good faith would be to invite the return of inspectors from the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency.