PANMUNJON, South Korea, Feb. 20 (UPI) -- President George W. Bush Wednesday came to the demilitarized zone that divides this ancient country to challenge the North Korean regime to end its 49-year-old confrontation with the south and halt its buildup of ballistic missiles.
Standing near the stark two-and-a-half-mile-wide, 150-mile-long border, only a few hundred yards from minefields, Bush said he sees "a peninsula that is one day united in commerce and cooperation instead of divided by barb wire and fear."
"Korean grandparents should be free to spend their final years with those they love," Bush said. "Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed. No nation should be a prison for its own people."
Bush spoke at the Dorasan train station, a brand-new building at the end of a brand-new highway, built in hopes that North Korea would re-open a rail line that runs north and south. The station is located a few hundred yards from the demilitarized zone that separates the free South from the North.
Both sides agreed to reconnect transportation links shortly after an inter-Korean summit in June 2000. But no trains run and no cars roll along the new Munson-Kaeson highway. The north has not yet begun construction on its side, according to White House information.
Each day, U.S. Second Infantry Division troops and soldiers from the Republic of Korea patrol this border on the highest stage of alert.
First Lt. Charles Levine, 36, of Charleston, S.C., told reporters "this is no joke up here." Wariness is a byword.
Bush came to the border zone by helicopter after meeting South Korean President Kim Dae-jung at his residence in Seoul in the morning. Between the two events, Bush was asked how Kim reacted to his Jan. 29 reference to North Korea, Iran and Iraq as an "axis of evil." The remark has provoked street demonstrations in Seoul over the past several weeks, including ones Tuesday when Bush arrived.
Kim told Bush it reminded him of former President Ronald Reagan's assertion that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire" and yet Reagan was later able to negotiate with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, Bush said.
Bush added that he does not know whether North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is a man he can negotiate with, "till he proves to the world that he has a good heart and cares about the people of his own country."
But the president said the offer he made in June for talks is still open. The U.S. will continue food shipments to the people of North Korea whether there is a dialogue or not, he said.
It was Kim's dedication to a reunited Korea that led him to engage in the most hopeful contacts with North Korea. Some in the region feared Bush's "axis of evil" remark would disrupt Kim's efforts.
Since Bush landed in Asia Sunday, he has softened his rhetoric, stressing that the North Korean regime is betraying its own people by its concentration on military buildup.
North Korea charged earlier this week that Bush was trying to kindle a new Korean War.
Bush also visited nearby Observation Post Ouellette Wednesday, a U.S. military outpost that overlooks the joint security area that divides North and South Korea. Visibility of the security area has declined over the years as vegetation grows on the northern side.
Bush travels to China Thursday where he plans to bring up religious issues with China President Jiang Zemin, including the Dali Llama and interned Chinese bishops. He told reporters he does not know whether his schedule will include meetings with Chinese dissidents.