Rice hits Korean issue sharply

Visit to bunker in South shows U.S. impatience


COMMAND POST TANGO, South Korea - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped off her airplane in Seoul yesterday evening, boarded an Army Black Hawk helicopter and immediately flew to this underground command bunker from which military commanders would direct any war against North Korea.

"I wanted to come here to thank you for what you do on the front lines of freedom," she told more than 100 service members in the war room, carved deep inside a mountain south of Seoul. "I know you face a close-in threat every day."

The visit, a strong reminder of U.S. military capability on the peninsula, came just hours after a speech in Tokyo in which Rice repeated that the United States has no intention of attacking North Korea. But Rice's aides are also making it plain that the administration has run out of patience with North Korea's continued refusal to rejoin nuclear disarmament talks.

A senior official traveling with Rice said the visit to the command bunker was a clear message that it was time to bring talks over the North's nuclear weapons program "to a satisfactory conclusion."

Rice's action was considered highly unusual because it was the first thing she did upon arriving in South Korea. Past presidents and secretaries of state and defense have traveled to frontline defenses against the North, but not to any underground bunker. And they have usually been careful not to come across as bellicose and have accompanied their moves with conciliatory language, in part not to alarm nervous citizens in South Korea.

Even the timing of Rice's tour served as a pointed gesture. As she spoke in the bunker, its huge monitors and banks of computers were acting as the nerve center for annual war games being conducted by 20,000 U.S. and South Korean troops practicing for an invasion of the North. And there have been joint naval exercises with U.S. allies in the region to demonstrate a willingness to interdict shipments to and from the North.

While her first move on Korean soil was aimed directly at North Korea, the major push of her Asian visit is to persuade China to "squeeze the North," as one aide said. China is North Korea's only ally, and Rice is to arrive in Beijing today.

The United States and other parties to the disarmament talks say they are concerned that China is holding back, declining to pressure North Korea as effectively as it could.

"I hope China can play an even more important role," Nobutaka Machimura, the Japanese foreign minister, said during a joint appearance with Rice in Tokyo earlier yesterday.

On Friday, Rice said, "Well, I assume that because China says it wants a non-nuclear Korean peninsula ... they are trying to be effective in their diplomacy." But she added that she will urge the Chinese to do more "when I get to Beijing."

In her Tokyo speech, which aides described as a major policy address, Rice pushed China to change its form of government, saying, "Even China must eventually embrace some form of open, genuinely representative government."

While in Beijing, her aides said, she plans to attend Palm Sunday services at a Protestant church - an act they consider provocative in a nation without freedom of religion.

Still, aides say North Korea will be the most important subject of discussions with Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao today - before services at Gangwashi Protestant Church.

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