Bush seeks global help to confront North Korea, says postelection U.S. won't retreat into isolationism.

Thursday, November 16th 2006, 5:25 am
By: News On 6

SINGAPORE (AP) _ Hurt by election losses back home, President Bush tried to exert his authority on the world stage Thursday by warning a nuclear-armed North Korea against peddling its weapons and vowing the United States would not retreat into isolationism.

Bush's declaration came on the eve of his arrival in Vietnam for a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders and individual meetings with a handful of them _ all curious about whether election setbacks had unsettled him. Striking moments for Bush in Hanoi will include a visit Friday to Communist Party headquarters for talks with the party's general secretary.

Bush directly challenged newly empowered Democrats in the U.S. who are demanding a fresh course in Iraq and are fearful that free-trade agreements could cost American jobs.

``We hear voices calling for us to retreat from the world and close our doors to these opportunities,'' the president said in a speech at the National University of Singapore. ``These are the old temptations of isolationism and protectionism, and America must reject them.''

Bush will turn to personal diplomacy in meetings Saturday and Sunday with Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's Hu Jintao, Japan's Shinzo Abe and South Korea's Roh Moo-hyun. All are partners with the United States in talks aimed at persuading a defiant North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.

While North Korea's recent nuclear test has been widely condemned, the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum appeared divided over what to say publicly.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who went to Hanoi a day ahead of the president seeking a consensus, said Thursday that North Korea must come to new disarmament talks ready to deal _ or there is no point in holding such a session.

``I do think that after having set off a nuclear test that the North Koreans need to do something to demonstrate that they actually are committed to denuclearization that goes beyond words,'' Rice said. ``Because after having set off a nuclear test, there's some skepticism about that.''

Bush said the transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to others would be ``a grave threat to the United States and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.''

``For the sake of peace,'' he said, ``it is vital that the nations of this region send a message to North Korea that the proliferation of nuclear technology to hostile regimes or terrorist networks will not be tolerated.''

Bush's visit to the one-time wartime capital of Hanoi brought inevitable comparisons between Iraq and the divisive war fought and lost in Vietnam more than three decades ago. Like Vietnam, the United States faces a determined insurgency in Iraq; both wars have demonstrated the limits of U.S. power.

``Historic parallels of that kind are, I think, not very helpful and I don't think they happen to be right,'' Rice told reporters on the way to Vietnam. ``This is a different set of circumstances with different stakes for the United States in a different kind of war.''

Bush is the fourth U.S. president to visit Vietnam, where communist forces prevailed over the United States in a conflict that claimed more than 58,000 American lives. The others were Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Bush's message in Asia was clear: The United States has been influential there for more than six decades and isn't about to pull back now. Many nations in the region are nervous about the rise of China and how Washington will react.

Despite Bush's tough talk, he was unable to deliver a promised agreement to normalize trade with Vietnam. The accord was held up by a House still in Republican hands, sending a bad signal across Asia about Bush's clout and the future of trade-liberalizing bills in the Democratic Congress taking power in January.

``In this new century,'' Bush said, ``America will remain engaged in Asia, because our interests depend on the expansion of freedom and opportunity in this region.''

He said the United States sees its role in Asia, a region with a history of colonialism, as one of ``partnership, not paternalism.''

In Singapore, the president met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He paid a courtesy call on acting President J.Y. Pillay and lauded Singapore's success at integrating its many ethnicities and religions by visiting its Asian Civilisations Museum.

Lee, who often has advised Bush on how to improve the U.S. image, particularly in the Muslim world, seemed pleased with the president's focus. ``Singapore is very happy that America has a stake in the region, and is growing the stake in the region,'' Lee said.

With another foreign-policy priority pending on Capitol Hill _ a civilian nuclear pact with India _ Bush spoke by telephone from Singapore with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The agreement has been approved by the House, and Bush told Singh that Republican Senate leaders have assured him they will act soon.