Presidents George W Bush and Lee Myung-bak wrapped up talks on Wednesday in Seoul. Both leaders agreed that North Korea must verify its nuclear weapons program and address concerns over its human rights record. This comes as good news for some advocates who fear Washington has overlooked some of Pyongyang’s abuses in order to obtain a breakthrough in the negotiations.
Presidents George W. Bush and Lee Myung-bak during their joint news conference Wednesday in Seoul
Standing beside South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak after Wednesday’s summit, US President George W Bush remained cautious about predicting when or even if North Korea would eventually give up its nuclear arsenal.
"This is a step by step process," the US president said. "I don't really know whether or not they are going to give up their weapons. I really don't know, I don't think either of us knows."
Since North Korea handed over its long awaited nuclear declaration and blew up the cooling tower of its main atomic reactor, the six party negotiations have hit yet another roadblock. Negotiators have not been able to agree on a system by which inspectors could verify what Pyongyang disclosed is accurate and complete.
No alternative to talks
President Lee seemed not too concerned about the current impasse and stated the multilateral talks would in the end prevail. Lee said regardless of what North Korea had in mind, he believed it was important for the other parties to the six-party talks to continue pursuing their objective. Those other nations include the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
Lee Chang Min, a lecturer in international relations at Yonsei Univesity in Seoul, agrees with the South Korean president that the talks are still the best way forward.
"If there is a very, very clear cut inspection regime that Pyongyang will agree to with the US, then there is a significant, I guess, chance that the nuclear problem will be resolved", he said. "Despite all the rhetoric, when you come down to it, what other means do you have to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully?"
New emphasis on human rights
A joint statement released following their summit states that human rights must become a central theme if relations with North Korea are to be normalized. For some human rights activists, that message has been long overdue.
Recently a group of several North Korean defectors and South Koreans who say their family members were kidnapped by Pyongyang held a rally in front of the US embassy in Seoul. They called on President Bush not to drop North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism.
Do Hee Yoon, who led the activists, said North Korea was still the world’s greatest terrorist threat. "North Korea has kidnapped people from many other countries, not just South Korea," Do said. "This is a clear example of terrorist activity. If these people are not returned home, how can North Korea be removed off the terrorism sponsor list?"
Human rights will be a recurring theme throughout the rest of President Bush’s Asia tour. With stops in Bangkok and Beijing, the outgoing American leader is expected to criticize the regimes in China, North Korea and Burma for oppressing their own people.