Bush vows to restore freedom in North Korea during Asia tour

SEOUL, South Korea – President Bush said Wednesday that he has no plans to order an invasion of North Korea, but he forcefully defended his decision to list the reclusive country as part of his “axis of evil.”

“We have no intention of invading North Korea,” Bush said at a joint news conference with South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. “We want them to have freedom, and we will work in a peaceful way to achieve that objective.”

At the same time, Bush refused to back down from his harsh criticism of North Korea’s leaders. He accused North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il of spurning peace overtures from the United States and South Korea.

President Bush arrived in South Korea from Japan on Tuesday on the second leg of a six-day Asian tour that will end Friday in China. He has used the trip to explain and elaborate on his State of the Union speech last month where he labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea an “axis of evil” for supporting terrorism.

“Let me explain why I made the comments I did: I love freedom,” Bush said Wednesday at the press conference with Kim. “I believe it is important for those of us who believe in freedom to stand strong for freedom – and that’s exactly why I said what I said.”

Bush’s hard-line stance toward North Korea has alarmed many South Koreans and undermined their government’s efforts to improve relations with the North. The two nations went to war in the 1950s and have maintained an uneasy truce ever since, with troops poised for battle on both sides of a demilitarized zone.

Kim, who faces re-election later this year, has made improved relations with the North a top priority, but his “sunshine policy” has failed to produce significant results.

Bush said he supports Kim’s efforts and blamed North Korea for the lingering tension. He compared his views to President Ronald Reagan’s approach to the former Soviet Union. Although Reagan denounced the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” he continued to seek improved relations.

But Bush added, “I will not change my opinion of Kim Jong-Il until he frees his people and accepts genuine proposals from countries such as South Korea or the United States to dialogue, until he proves to the world that he’s got a good heart.”