Bush denies being 'soft' on North Korea nuclear program

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Bush and Japan's prime minister urged North Korea yesterday to abide by its commitment to dismantle its nuclear programs or face new sanctions.

During a U.S. visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Bush rejected the suggestion that he had "gone soft" by granting North Korea additional time to comply with an agreement reached in February to halt its reactor at Yongbyon.

"We recently had a bump in the road to getting them to honor their agreement," Bush conceded during a brief question-and-answer session with reporters at his Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland. "We now have a structure in place to continue to provide a strong message to the North Koreans. We have the capability of more sanctions. We have the capability of convincing other nations to send a clear message."

Bush did not specify what he meant by the threat of more sanctions. Progress on the agreement has stalled because of a dispute over $25 million in North Korean funds held by a bank in Macau. U.S. officials say a freeze on the funds has been lifted, but North Korean officials say they are still unable to access the money or transfer it elsewhere.

In response, North Korea has delayed giving access to the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect Yongbyon and verify that the reactors have been halted.

"Our patience is not unlimited ... there is still time for the North Korean leader to make the right choice," Bush said.

Abe is on a two-day visit to Washington, his first since he became Japanese prime minister in September. Most of the visit has consisted of private meetings between Abe and Bush, ostensibly to give the two time to develop a personal relationship.

But it also allowed Abe to avoid public forums at which he would likely face awkward questions about the Japanese role in sexually enslaving 200,000 so-called "comfort women" during World War II. Abe has expressed sorrow for their plight but has refused to acknowledge that it was the Japanese military that coerced the women into brothels.

"I, as prime minister of Japan, express my apologies and also express my apologies for the fact that they were placed in that sort of circumstance," Abe repeated yesterday in response to a reporter's question, using the same language he has used before to avoid the question of who was responsible for their situation.

Bush and Abe, in the relaxed style of Camp David, wore coats without ties and adjourned after the news conference for a lunch of American cheeseburgers. Bush says he hopes the Japanese will end their ban on imports of U.S. beef, imposed after the crisis surrounding mad cow disease three years ago.

"The Japanese people are better off when they eat American beef," Bush said.

Abe was given the coveted invitation to the Camp David presidential retreat in part as a gesture of appreciation for Tokyo's commitment to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Japan is the largest financial contributor, after the United States, for the rebuilding effort in Iraq, and is the third-largest contributor in Afghanistan. Japanese defense forces have conducted refueling operations for the U.S. and coalition forces.

Abe expressed thanks "for the noble sacrifice the United States is making" in Iraq. On Thursday, the Japanese leader went to Arlington National Cemetery to pay respects to U.S. war dead, and visited injured troops at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

"The president expressed his strong determination to carry through for the task of Iraq's reconstruction," Abe said. "And I told the president that Japan understands and supports U.S. efforts for the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq, and Japan will carry on its own efforts to the same end."

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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