The Bush administration's Korea experts were distressed earlier this week when a Pentagon official suggested that Washington was perhaps only weeks away from taking its case against North Korea to the UN Security Council.
That was not the message that the administration wanted to convey as President George W. Bush was preparing to receive South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyon at the White House. The Pentagon official's words were quickly disavowed.
Bush met with Roh on Friday and assured him that he is committed to the six-party negotiation aimed at achieving North Korea's nuclear disarmament.
Bush said the negotiation was "essential" and that Washington and Seoul were "strategic partners and allies and friends." Roh said, "We are in full and perfect agreement on the basic principles."
It was a decorous exchange, fitting nicely with Roh's aversion for sabre-rattling and provocative rhetoric. Bush appeared to show deference to his guest when he referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as "Mr." -- a sign of respect that Bush does not always show. Just a month ago, Bush described Kim as a "tyrant."
Bush made no reference to the UN Security Council option, which the North would vigorously oppose as a provocation.
Roh's visit was timely, giving him the opportunity to compare notes with Bush on North Korea's recent expression of interest in resuming the six-party discussions, which it has boycotted for a year.
For both sides, the ideal outcome is an agreement under which North Korea would verifiably dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits from the US, South Korea and other prosperous countries.
While agreeing on the long-term strategy, there are differences over tactics. Geography is widening the gap between the two. The mighty North sits within artillery range of the Seoul. The US is an ocean away.
The South gets rattled when the US tries to coerce the North into behaving better. But without an element of coercion, Washington believes the North has no incentive to negotiate away its nuclear arsenal.
And as the North appears to be en route to possession of six or more weapons, the US worries that Pyongyang will go international, exporting weapons or weapons technology, not to mention the missiles needed to launch bombs. The US fears it would keep in reserve enough bombs to deal with contingencies at home.
Roh doesn't discount this scenario but believes the best way out of the dilemma is engagement with the North. He feels most comfortable when its Washington ally speaks softly and stresses the need for peace -- precisely what Bush did on Friday.