Bush scrambles for North Korea breakthrough

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak laughs as President George W. Bush speaks of President Lee’s nickname, the “Bulldozer,” during a joint press availability on Saturday, April 19, 2008. Photo provided by whitehouse.gov.

By Ben Feller
The Associated Press

LIMA, Peru (AP) — President George W. Bush scrambled allies Saturday, Nov. 22, to secure a North Korea disarmament deal before he leaves office, rushing hard for a late, legacy-shaping win.

As Bush engaged in some final diplomacy on the world stage amid a global economic slide, the White House announced that all nations engaged in the showdown with North Korea would meet in China in early December.

That nudge in the process alone was a boost to Bush, whose government is eager to lock in an international agreement on how to accurately verify North Korea’s nuclear capabilities.

Meanwhile, grappling with a collapsing economy, Bush went before leaders at a major Asia-Pacific summit and tried to turn the crisis into an upbeat opportunity. He said the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression is a new chance for world unity and prosperity.

He backed up that lofty idea not with any specifics but broad principles, promoting the power of open markets and free trade. The message was reminiscent of how Bush responded to other disasters, such as vowing that a town flattened by a tornado will come back stronger.

“The policies of free enterprise that lifted up so many in this region can help chart a path to recovery for the whole world,” Bush told leaders at a 20-nation summit in Peru.

“With confidence in our ideals, we can turn the challenge we face today to an opportunity — and lead the way toward a new era of prosperity for the Asia Pacific and beyond,” he said.

Bush is using the summit to build support for an emergency plan approved by the group of 20 nations, which include the world’s richest economies plus big developing nations such as China, Brazil and India. Those nations agreed to work together on tighter oversight of their financial market and stand by a commitment to open trade and many other steps.

On North Korea, Bush kept a schedule of a man who’s running out of time for action.

He met individually with two vital partners, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, sandwiched around a joint session of all three men. Bush had already conferred about the North Korea conflict the day prior with Chinese President Hu Jintao, and he was also meeting with the last key partner, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The four countries they represent, along with the U.S. and North Korea, make up the so-called six-party talks. The current deal calls for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and weapons capability in exchange for aid and diplomatic concessions.

Getting a written verification plan for the secretive communist nation is the hang-up.

The White House said that U.S. partners were growing wary that all their work over North Korea — a long and torturous diplomatic process — might disappear without success soon. Starting Jan. 20, Democrat Barack Obama will decide how the U.S. engages North Korea.

“I think the very understandable concern of these foreign governments is, ‘Will the new administration do some sort of policy review? Will it try to work with some new ideas?’” said Dennis Wilder, the White House’s top Asian affairs adviser.

“The one idea that all of these countries are definitely committed to is that the six-party process is the right format,” he said. “They want to, if you will, put this in the most attractive place possible so that the next American administration will see its value.”

Bush’s late Saturday-afternoon session with Medvedev comes at a time of tense relations between two former Cold War foes. Russia opposed the U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Europe, and the U.S. says Russia lost international standing through its war with Georgia.

Just hours before the meeting, the White House released a statement hailing the peaceful revolution to a free society in Georgia five years ago — a potential poke at Russia.

Perino said of the timing of that statement: “It was purely coincidence.”

Earlier, Bush also met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Their comments to reporters underscored that Bush’s last Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum has exactly the kind of farewell-tour feel that the White House downplayed ahead of the trip.

“It’s been a joy to work with you,” Bush told Harper. “We’ve accomplished a lot together.” ♦

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