WASHINGTON -- South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, warmly welcomed here as a forceful agent of Asia's economic and democratic potential, told President Bush yesterday that the U.S.-backed goal of peacefully reunifying the two Koreas will be reached before 2000.
"We must now focus our attention on removing the legacies of the Cold War from the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia so that a durable peace and stability may be secured for the entire Asia Pacific region," Mr. Roh said in a statement as he arrived at the White House.
With close cooperation between the United States and South Korea, a senior Roh aide predicted, North Korea would fail in its bid to acquire nuclear weapons and, in the face of pressure from various sources, would abandon its goal of unifying the peninsula by force.
South Korea's dynamic growth in one generation from a poor nation to the world's 13th-biggest economy, together with what President Bush called its "steadfast and strong" commitment to democracy, were highlighted by U.S. officials during the first state visit in 25 years by a South Korean official.
Disputes over the speed with which South Korea is opening its economy to U.S. goods were referred to only indirectly by Mr. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III but were pursued by subordinates.
"A central new challenge for us all is updating the rules of the road for world trade in order to sustain a free-trade regime," said Mr. Baker, who told Mr. Roh that "as a leading trading nation, trade liberalization is in your interests as much as ours."
Officials underscored the two countries' concern about North Korea's potential for acquiring nuclear weapons and joined in demanding that North Korea permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its nuclear program.
North Korea has refused to allow such inspections unless any U.S. nuclear weapons based in South Korea also are inspected.
The United States refuses to confirm or deny the locations of its nuclear weapons and rejects any attempt by North Korea to attach conditions to its compliance with international safeguards.
Kim Chong Whi, Mr. Roh's national security adviser, indicated that South Korea agrees with the United States in rejecting the North Korean conditions. He said Mr. Roh and Mr. Bush "saw the issue from the same angle."
Mr. Roh, who is making an eight-day trip through the United States and Canada, made his prediction about unification during a 40-minute private meeting with President Bush, officials of the two countries said.
Later in the day, the two leaders met on the tennis court to play doubles.
Contacts between North and South Korea have stalled recently, the Roh aide said, perhaps because North Korea hopes "that the thinking may blow up in the South because of the student unrest." But he predicted that the talks would resume.
Outlining the conditions that are likely to prod the two Koreas toward unification, the Roh aide said that North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, 79, is "not in the best condition" physically and that political problems in the North will follow his departure.
With its trade balance in "extreme difficulty" and in desperate need for food, North Korea's "system cannot be sustained," the aide said, and news from the outside world is starting to reach its closed society.
Richard Solomon, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, declined to endorse Mr. Roh's prediction on unification but said, "The tenor of the discussion between the two countries is that we're in a time of enormous and often unexpected change."
The United States is cutting its troop levels in South Korea by 10 percent to 12 percent as South Korea assumes a bigger share of the cost of its defense.
But Mr. Bush reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to South Korea's security and stressed that the United States has no intention of neglecting the region, which he hopes to visit by the end of the year, Mr. Solomon said.