George Bush had already urged dialogue and reconciliation between the two Koreas. But yesterday, he donned a green army jacket and went in person to the very edge of his "axis of evil".
Peering through binoculars on to the bare hills of North Korea, he said crisply and simply: "We're ready." For 10 minutes, the American President stood on the observation post, heavily fortified with sandbags, next to the Demilitarised Zone, which is four kilometres wide. The post is barely a half-hour drive from South Korea's capital, Seoul. In front was a razor-wire fence. Beyond that lay the territory of what is perhaps the world's most reclusive and militarised state.
Mr Bush's foray to the DMZ area was the high spot of his visit to South Korea, on the eve of his departure to China for the final leg of his six-day trip to east Asia. And while the President's support for talks between the two Koreas might have mended some fences with a jittery South Korea, there was no such progress with North Korea – not that anyone had expected it.
The Pyongyang government did not directly mention Mr Bush's presence just a few miles away yesterday. But the state-controlled media left no doubt of its views, branding America "a rogue state running amok in the international community" and vowing to "wipe out invaders with a thousand-fold retaliatory strikes".
Mr Bush went out of his way in Seoul to insist he had no intention of invading its northern neighbour. Broadly, he seemed to back the "sunshine policy" of South Korea's President, Kim Dae Jung, and the pursuit of closer political and human ties between two states still, technically, in a state of war.
He insisted that Washington's stance towards North Korea, a country it accuses of developing weapons of mass destruction and exporting the technology, was "purely defensive." America longed for peace, he said. "It's in our interest to achieve peace on the peninsula." Mr Bush also drew a careful distinction between the repressive Pyongyang regime and the long-suffering North Korean people over whom it ruled. But, as he made plain in a casual but well-scripted moment, evil was evil whichever way you looked at it.
Standing at the DMZ bunker behind a bullet-proof glass screen, the President listened as a US officer pointed out a museum on the North Korean side displaying, inter alia, the axes used by Northern troops to kill two American servicemen in a gruesome clash in the zone in August 1976. "The axes used to slaughter two US soldiers are in the peace museum," Mr Bush declared. "No wonder I think they're evil."
His words will do nothing to quell the anger of the protesters who have dogged his visit to Seoul – a manifestation of South Korea's visceral fear that the bellicose policies of its patron power could drag it into war with North Korea.
But Mr Bush defended himself against that charge too, claiming that in their talks earlier, President Kim himself had noted that two decades earlier, Ronald Reagan's labelling of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire" had not prevented him from a constructive dialogue with Mikhail Gorbachev.
Mr Bush himself presented the division of North and South Korea with Reaganesque bluntness, as a choice between freedom and imprisonment, between communism and capitalism. If they could visit the south, he declared, the North Korean people "would see creativity and spiritual freedom ... a great hopeful alternative to stagnation and starvation".
Obliquely, the South Korean President did indicate there were differences between himself and Mr Bush in their approach to North Korea. But he did not specifically criticise the "axis of evil" formulation.Reuse content