South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun will fly to the US this weekend to tackle two of his toughest hurdles: resolving the North Korean nuclear threat and reducing his country's decades-old reliance on the US military.
Roh's week-long trip, which begins on Sunday, comes amid heightened tensions over North Korea's suspected development of nuclear weapons and rising calls in Washington for the US to cut its troop presence in South Korea.
Finding a mutually acceptable way of defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis will be the key topic of the May 14 White House summit between US President George W. Bush and Roh, both known for being plainspoken about their views on the government in Pyongyang.
In a meeting in Beijing in late April, North Korea gave US negotiators a long wish list of political and economic benefits it wants to get in return for giving up its nuclear ambitions, according to US officials. Washington is reviewing the proposal with its allies in Japan and South Korea.
"The outline of how we will respond will become clear after the South Korea-US summit," Ra Jong-il, national security adviser for Roh, said yesterday.
Since his election last December, Roh has tirelessly called for reconciliation with North Korea and a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis.
He bluntly criticized any possibility of US military action against the North, saying such an attack would trigger a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula that would devastate the South as well.
Bush says he seeks a peaceful solution too, but he pulls no punches when criticizing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, whom he accuses of "blackmailing" the outside world and starving his people while pursuing weapons of mass destruction. US officials have not ruled out the military option.
The nuclear dispute flared in October when Washington said North Korea admitted running a secret-nuclear-weapons program in violation of a 1994 treaty.
During the Beijing talks, US officials say, North Korea claimed it already has nuclear weapons and that it had reprocessed spent nuclear fuel for more weapons materials.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said impoverished North Korea can count on support from other countries only if it curbs nuclear-weapons programs and missile exports as well as other activities such as drug trafficking.
Roh's trip to Washington comes at a sensitive time in the US-South Korean alliance, forged during the Korean War.
By October, the Pentagon is likely to decide on a major realignment -- and perhaps a substantial withdrawal -- of forces in South Korea.
Several months ago, thousands of South Koreans held street rallies to protest the deaths of two girls hit by a US military vehicle and call for more South Korean jurisdiction over US troops. While tension rose in the nuclear standoff, however, thousands of South Koreans also rallied in support of the US military presence.
In a TV debate show on Thursday, Roh said it was time for South Korea to reduce its dependence on the US military.
"Some people seem to think, `We will all die if we don't have the US military.' This is simply not true," Roh said. "South Koreans are underestimating the self-defense capabilities of their own military."
But Roh complained that the US and South Korea were "out of step" with each other over when to pull back US troops deployed close to the border with North Korea.