SEOUL, South Korea -- After several remarkable agreements intended to end four decades of war and hostility between the two Koreas, President Bush arrived here yesterday and quietly warned the South Korean leadership against moving too fast in its dealings with the communist North before hard evidence emerges that the North is ending reported efforts to produce nuclear weapons.
At a private dinner last night with South Korea's president, Roh Tae Woo, Mr. Bush made it clear that he thought the Cold War was far from over in northeast Asia and seemed implicitly critical of Mr. Roh for rushing into accords with the North, according to a senior South Korean official who attended the dinner.
The accords include a non-aggression pact and a mutual vow to ban nuclear weapons from Korean territory, which the two nations signed Dec. 31.
But the agreements are vague on the specifics of inspecting nuclear sites, something the North Korean government of President Kim Il Sung has left unresolved at the same time that it appears to be nearing the capability to build a crude nuclear weapon.
The nuclear issue is expected to dominate Mr. Bush's visit here, though trade disputes are expected to occupy much of the discussions in formal sessions today. The president's trip culminates in a three-day visit this week to Japan, where trade and Mr. Bush's vow to create jobs for Americans are already creating considerable tension in Japan.
Though the United States and South Korea have worked closely on a strategy to isolate the North and force it to give up its nuclear effort, officials in Washington have been increasingly concerned that Mr. Roh has not extracted enough solid, specific commitments on nuclear inspection in its negotiations.
In response to Mr. Bush's implicit criticism, however, Mr. Roh defended the approach last night, telling Mr. Bush, "We think it is important to start the process of change in the North," said the official who was at the dinner. In time, the South Korean president argued, those changes will overwhelm the increasingly desperate North. The official added that the tone of the dinner was friendly.
"Mr. Bush said, 'I don't trust Kim Il Sung,' the official said, referring to the man North Koreans have known as the "Dear Leader" since shortly after the end of World War II. "President Roh told him that he doesn't, either. But this is better than backing him into a corner."
Mr. Bush landed yesterday in Seoul, a city awash in rumors and guesses about the North's strategy and about what forces -- a bad harvest, the promise of Japanese aid, the collapse of the former Soviet Union -- have prompted Pyongyang to drop its ritual vitriol about the South in favor of diplomatic agreements.
Even Mr. Roh's government seems to be having trouble adjusting to the change in tone by the North, issuing public statements lauding the change in attitude while privately expressing doubts that the North's intentions have really changed.
North Korea, officials point out, has promised many times before to submit to nuclear inspection and always has raised new obstacles when the moment seemed near.
Nonetheless, the South regards even the fact that it is signing pacts with Mr. Kim as a major victory. Until recently, North Korea had said it would negotiate on nuclear issues only with the United States, an effort to portray the Seoul government as a lackey of Washington.
The atmosphere has changed so radically that there was a recent report not confirmed by either side but also not denied -- that Mr. Roh would meet Mr. Kim in March in the first North-South summit meeting.
The most intense speculation surrounds how the North will follow up on the Joint Declaration for a Non-Nuclear Korean Peninsula, which was signed hours before 1991 ended. On paper, but not necessarily in practice, that agreement should bring Mr. Kim's crash project to produce weapons-grade plutonium, and presumably a crude nuclear weapon, to a halt.
Critics in South Korea say Mr. Roh moved too fast in signing accords before the inspection issues were resolved.
Beyond the nuclear issue, Mr. Bush brought no urgent matters with him to Seoul, one of the United States' closest allies in Asia. He is making his two-day state visit, which ends tomorrow morning, in part to reciprocate for a visit by Mr. Roh to Washington last summer.
Mr. Bush is expected to raise several complaints about South Korean trade barriers at talks today, administration officials said. But economic relations between the two nations are generally good, after a period in the 1980s when South Korea's annual trade surplus with Washington approached $10 billion.