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Bush: NKorea must verify denuclearization

Aug. 06, 2008, 2:07 a.m. (ET)

SEOUL, South Korea(AP) U.S. President George W. Bush offered poverty-wracked North Korea hope Wednesday that it could share in South Korea's economic prosperity while warning that it first must take concrete steps to live up to a promise to end its nuclear weapons program.

Bush, kicking off a three-nation Asian visit, made clear the reclusive communist country must continue to live up to the step-by-step denuclearization process of a framework agreement reached in six-party talks involving both Koreas, the United States, Japan, China and Russia.

But while he spoke of a future in which North Korea is no longer part of the ``axis of evil'' he first outlined in 2002, along with Iran and prewar Iraq, Bush said much work remains, including improvement of Pyongyang's human rights record.

Addressing a news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Bush also advised China that its pre-Olympics crackdown on dissent was ``a mistake.''

The communist country considers the Olympics a source of huge national pride and is pulling out all stops to ensure no embarrassments. It has rounded up dissidents, detaining some. Journalists covering the games have objected to restrictions on Internet sites, worried about possible censorship.

``You should not fear religious people in your societies,'' said Bush, who was to fly later to Thailand before heading to Beijing in time for the opening ceremonies of the games.

``As a matter of fact, religious people will make your society a better place. You ought to welcome people being able to express their minds. To the extent that people aren't able to do that, people aren't able to worship freely is - you know - I think is a mistake.''

North Korea expects Bush to remove it from the U.S. list of terror-sponsoring countries as soon as next weekend, as promised when the North blew up its nuclear reactor cooling tower in June.

But Bush said North Korea - which has a history of unpredictability and has repeatedly used negotiations over its nuclear program to wring aid and concessions from the West - must first agree to international terms for verifying its dismantlement efforts. Even if Pyongyang is removed from the terror list, it still will be the ``most sanctioned country in the world,'' he added.

``I don't know whether or not they're going to give up their weapons,'' Bush said. ``I really don't know. I don't think either of us knows.''

Lee called North Korea ``a very difficult opponent,'' even though it has become increasingly dependent on foreign food aid to feed its people.

But, he added: ``I have faith we will be able to move to the verification process, then to the next step.''

The North, which exploded a nuclear device in 2006, is believed by experts to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium to make as many as 10 nuclear bombs, and the U.S. has accused Pyongyang of running a second weapons program based on uranium. Actual destruction of weapons - the ultimate goal of six-party talks with North Korea - is months away at the least.

``North Korea traps its people in misery and isolation,'' Bush said. ``The human rights abuses inside the country still exist and persist.

``The North Korea leader has yet to fully verify the extent to which he has had a highly enriched uranium program. There's still more steps to be done on the plutonium program,'' Bush said. ``In order to get off the list, the axis of evil list, the North Korean leader is going to have to make certain decisions.''

Still, he said he hoped to see all that comes to pass.

``My hope is that the axis of evil list no longer exists. That's my hope for the sake of peace. That's my hope for the sake of our children,'' Bush said.

``The two presidents made it clear that they are committed to helping North Korea integrate into the international community and thereby partake in the peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia,'' said a joint statement issued by the presidents.

Lee, a pro-American leader who took office in February, has seen his approval ratings tumble after lifting a ban on U.S. beef imports despite public fears about its safety. The public outcry prompted street protests that drew attention worldwide earlier this year.

American beef was served at a luncheon that Lee and his wife hosted for Bush and his wife, Laura.

Both presidents vowed to pursue legislative approval of a free trade agreement - the largest since NAFTA - by the end of the year, though the prospects appear slim.

Bush also visited U.S. troops at the Yongsan base in the middle of Seoul, lucrative real estate that Washington is handing back to South Korea as part of global base closures and armed forces realignment.

He thanked the troops and their families for the sacrifices they have made in the war on terrorism.

``We will defeat the enemy overseas so we do not have to face them at home,'' he said to repeated applause and shouts of approval.