Panmunjom, Korea President Bush pledged today to defend South Korea from the "despotic regime" to the north, yet sought to assure U.S. allies that he was not driving toward war. "We have no intention of invading North Korea," the president said.
In a joint news conference with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, Bush endorsed his counterpart's "sunshine policy" of reaching out to Pyongyang and said the United States would be willing to open talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
But he made clear that he has reservations about the regime he lumped in with Iran and Iraq as "an axis of evil." The provocative phrase clashed with Kim's policies and caused allies to wonder whether the United States was bent for war.
After the news conference, Bush took a 20-minute helicopter ride to the Demilitarized Zone, a 2 1/2-mile-wide, 151-mile-long border strewn with mines and guarded by a total of nearly 2 million troops on the two sides. The United States has stationed 37,000 troops in South Korea, and Bush saluted their commander, Lt. Col. William Miller, as he arrived.
The president rode to the DMZ in an armored truck that passed an anti-tank wall packed with explosives. Standing at a sandbag bunker, Bush peered through binoculars at the North Korean positions.
During a tour, Miller told Bush that axes used by North Korean soldiers to kill two U.S. servicemen in 1976 were in a "peace museum" just across the border.
Shaking his head in disgust, Bush said: "No wonder I think they're evil."
U.S. officials cast the visit as a display of U.S. force and compassion.
A grim portrait
In remarks prepared for delivery at the Dorasan Train Station a few hundred yards from the Demilitarized Zone, Bush painted a grim portrait of life in North Korea, saying, "Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed."
"No nation should be a prison for its own people," the president said. "My vision is clear. I see a peninsula that is one day united in commerce and cooperation instead of divided by barbed wire and fear." He expressed a desire for a united Korean peninsula, saying it would bring freedom, prosperity and peace to North Koreans now mired in "stagnation and starvation."
In the news conference, Bush made a point of explaining why he has identified North Korea, Iran and Iraq as a dangerous trio. The North Koreans are unresponsive to U.S. attempts to start a dialogue, Bush said. And he won't change his opinion of North Korea's leader "until he frees his people" and agrees to talks, the president said.
"I'm deeply concerned about the people of North Korea and I believe it is important for those of us who love freedom to stand strong for freedom," he said.
The South Korean leader played down conflicts between his policies and Bush's tough approach. "I believe there was no difference of opinion," he said.
Bush said the United States would continue to provide food and humanitarian assistance to North Korea, even if the nation's reclusive leader does not agree to talks.
"Any people who live under a despotic regime have our sympathy," Bush said.
The train station is the last stop on the South Korean side of the Unification Railway. South Korea completed the project in February under a June 2000 agreement to reconnect the peninsula through rail and highway. North Korea has yet to begin construction of the road and railway, making the project in the south a dead end and a symbol of North-South relations.
No plans to invade
Bush said he supports the South Korean sunshine policy, and compared his policy toward North Korea with that of former President Reagan, who described the then-Soviet Union as an "evil empire" but proceeded to engage then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
He said flatly he has no plans to invade North Korea, responding to fears in the region that a U.S. military attack might be imminent. But Bush also said the onus is on North Korea to demonstrate that it does not intend to threaten its southern neighbor or other U.S. allies.
"We have no intention of invading North Korea. South Korea has no intention of attacking North Korea, nor does America," said Bush, commander in chief of nearly 40,000 U.S. troops deployed along the border. "We're purely defensive. And the reason we have to be defensive is because there is a threatening position on the DMZ."
Reaffirming the decades-old commitment to protect South Korea against invasion from the North, the president said, "We stand firm behind peace in the peninsula."
Leader a 'visionary'
In their two hours of private meetings, Bush called Kim "visionary" for reaching out to the North and told the leader he was willing to talk with the North Koreans "anytime, anywhere," according to White House officials
Bush's provocative description of North Korea has caused unease in Asia. Bush's warnings clashed with the policies of Kim, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for a four-year quest to soften relations with his northern neighbor. The South Korean believes that gestures of friendship can ease tensions on the peninsula and reduce the prospects for war.
North Korea continued to accuse Bush of warmongering.
"If the U.S. imperialists and Japanese reactionaries should provoke the second Korean War, to the end our military and people will attack them with 100 times to 1,000 times of revenge," Radio Pyongyang said in a commentary monitored by the Radiopress agency in Tokyo.
The president was bringing to the DMZ a satellite photo of nighttime light on the Korean peninsula, showing the highly developed South awash in blots of light and only two or three pinpricks of white in the North, the largest in the capital, Pyongyang. White House counselor Karen Hughes said the photo illustrates the "light and opportunity that comes with freedom."