North Korea, trade top Bush talks with South Korean leader

Other News Materials 19 April 2008 13:06 (UTC +04:00)

(AP) - President Bush and South Korea's new President Lee Myung-bak were having fried chicken and potato salad for lunch Saturday, but beef was on the dinner menu when they began two days of talks at the Camp David presidential retreat.

Anything else might not have seemed quite right.

The White House said the dinner menu Friday night always included Texas black Angus beef tenderloin, but the choice became even more apropos when South Korea announced on Friday that it would lift its ban on U.S. beef imports. That removed an obstacle to getting lawmakers to ratify a free trade deal that Bush wants with South Korea, although the pact still faces opposition in Congress.

Bush is hoping to strengthen sometimes-shaky U.S.-South Korea ties under Lee, a pro-American conservative who has taken a strong stance against North Korea's nuclear program, another key topic of talks. Lee's position on North Korea may turn out to be even tougher than Bush's right now because the United States is pressing hard for an agreement.

Nuclear talks are stalled over whether the North will hand over a promised full declaration of its nuclear programs in return for concessions. The Bush administration apparently has decided that the declaration's exact contents are less important than an assurance that the nuclear negotiators can check up on Kim Jong Il's government to make sure it has told the truth.

Bush and Lee's get-acquainted sessions at the secluded presidential retreat were buoyed by the beef announcement.

South Korea was the third-largest foreign market for U.S. beef before it banned imports in December 2003 over the possibility of mad cow disease. Even with the beef spat resolved, however, the trade deal still faces concerns by Democrats and automakers and a narrowing legislative calendar that could push the issue into the next administration.

The South Korean Agriculture Ministry said it will allow U.S. beef imports from cattle younger than 30 months. Younger cows are believed to be less at risk for mad cow disease. South Korea said it would allow beef from older cattle after the U.S. strengthens controls on feed to reduce chances of infection.

Even with that progress, the trade deal could face trouble as U.S. lawmakers, including Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, voice increasingly anti-free trade sentiments.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman the Senate Finance Committee, said he will block consideration of the trade agreement until all cuts of U.S. beef from cattle of all ages are on Korean store shelves.

On North Korea, Bush is embracing Lee's get-tough rhetoric against its communist neighbor. But the talks between North Korea and the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan are at an impasse over how the North should make good on its pledge to declare its nuclear activities.

Lee, who took office in late February, made the United States his first overseas trip. He is the first South Korean president to be invited to Camp David. Bush and first lady Laura Bush greeted Lee and his wife, Kim Yoon-ok, at a helipad at the wooded retreat that is showing off signs of spring.

Bush started to climb into the driver's seat of one of the golf carts used to get around Camp David, then asked Lee if he wanted to drive.

"Yeah. Can I drive?" Lee asked, then moved quickly to the driver's side.

As the two drove past the media, Bush joked, "He's afraid of my driving."