How to Stay on Script in South Korea

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Bush and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun attend a news conference in Kyongju on Nov.17

As stage-managed and air-brushed as meetings between world leaders have become, the public rarely sees the actual script. So President Bush watched in amusement on Thursday as an aide to South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun walked in front of live television cameras and plunked a sheet of vertically folded paper on the podium as Roh (a Korean name that is pronounced "No," a boon to nay-saying anti-government protesters) gave a long and rambling answer at the two leaders' news conference in the ancient Korean capital of Gyeongju. Bush staffers around the room eyed each other merrily, realizing that (a) the boss would kill them if they did such a thing and (b) it would be a Jon Stewart moment for the ages.

The American contingent's three days in South Korea, centered around an annual Asia-Pacific economic summit, are underscoring differences between the allies, at a time when Bush is anxious to portray unity in confronting Roh's nuclear neighbor, North Korea. Roh, given a choice between dissembling or dissing Bush when asked if his country's approach of giving assistance to North Korea puts him at odds with the United States, replied, "Next," and motioned for a question from KBS [a Korean broadcasting network]." Quizzed about the same issue aboard Air Force One on the way to South Korea, Bush national security aide Michael Green acknowledged that "the tone is different sometimes" and that "sometimes you get a slightly different emphasis," although the goal of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula is the same. "For the people of the Republic of Korea, the Demilitarized Zone is right at their doorstep," noted Green, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council. "Seoul is as close to the DMZ and North Korean artillery as the White House is to Dulles Airport. So it's very much a clear and present threat for the people of the Republic of Korea, and the President is fully aware of that."

The 24-minute news conference, despite having a tight format of opening statements and then two questions from each country's press corps, was filled with surreal moments. Roh went off on a tangent in which he propounded an unconventional reading of American Civil War history in explaining his own country's ginger approach to North Korean human rights issues. "I do understand that President Lincoln was quite slow in liberating the slaves in the United States," Roh said. "This was because the President, if he took the lead in this issue, he thought that America would be divided in opinion, and this would be very serious. In reality, the Civil War did take place, and because of this issue of slaves, there was a situation where the United States was in jeopardy, and because of that, he had to go through a process to ensure that the country would stay together." Moments before, an American reporter's eagerness to be called on provided a light moment during a serious and even tedious session. White House press secretary Scott McClellan, standing in the wings with his South Korean counterpart, called on Caren Bohan of Reuters to ask the second question from the U.S. David E. Sanger of The New York Times, the press corps' leader in covering North Korean nuclear issue, was so intent on asking a question that he accepted the microphone when it was handed to Bohan. "You can go ahead and grab the mike if you want to," Bush joshed. "But I didn't know you were called "Caren.' " On the contrary, among his prank-happy fellow reporters, Sanger is likely to be called "Caren" from now on.