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Last Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006, 03:14 GMT 04:14 UK
US and Korea paper over the cracks
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun with US President George Bush in the White House on Thursday
The two leaders did their best not to let the differences show

When their brief media appearance together ended, President George Bush turned to President Roh Moo-hyun and muttered: "Good job!"

Perhaps the remark showed relief that the two had managed to sweep their differences under the carpet.

Ahead of their White House meeting there were plenty of signs that the relationship was under strain.

The United States and South Korea's half century-old close relationship had even been likened to going through the early stages of a bitter divorce.

President Roh himself had acknowledged that people in both countries were "quite concerned" about the state of relations. But somehow they managed to paper over the cracks.

Carrot v stick

The most obvious challenge was how to deal with North Korea.

Seoul has been engaging with its communist neighbour - increasing trade and aid.

Some observers believe the mixed message has allowed Kim Jong-il the room to make mischief

But Washington has adopted the harsher policy of confrontation, to stop North Korea from developing its nuclear weapons programme.

Some observers believe that mixed message has allowed North Korean leader Kim Jong-il the room to make mischief. In July he defied the world by test-firing a long-range missile which in theory could reach the US mainland.

In the end the missile disintegrated soon after take-off.

But now, with North Korea threatening to carry out a nuclear test, the two leaders have a more united message.

Both restated their commitment to the stalled six-party talks.

President Bush said that Kim Jong-il's continuing boycott of the talks had "strengthened the alliance" of the US, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan to "resolve this issue peacefully" - that last word, at least, a reassurance to his South Korean ally.

Their real problem though is that North Korea shows little sign that it is ready to return to the negotiating table.

And Seoul and Washington still appear at odds over whether Kim Jong-il should be given a carrot or a stick.

Breathing space

Differences also remain over the command of joint wartime forces in South Korea.

US soldiers at Yongsan base in South Korea
The US's sizeable military presence in S Korea is another touchy subject

President Roh would like to see the command handed over to South Korea.

But many in Washington and even in South Korea believe it would send the wrong signal to Pyongyang if the US transferred command or withdrew many of its 30,000 troops stationed in the country.

President Bush kicked the issue into touch by saying that "decisions about the placement of our troops and the size of our troops will be made in consultation with the Korean government".

Both gave the other some breathing space without resolving the issue.

So reports of the death of the US and South Korean alliance were greatly exaggerated.

But there is still plenty to bicker over in the years ahead.

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