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Bush's tough talk in the land of reticence

Today the US president heads to South Korea, within earshot of the 'axis of evil,' as all Asia listens.

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As President George Bush visits South Korea today, and then China later this week, officials in the region are on the edge of their seats.

They wonder: Will he be the same hip-shootin', plain-talkin' Texas politician they see on TV?

In Asia, style and semantics often make up the substance of politics. Words are face-saving veneers, artful diplomatic screens. No one speaks directly. Relationships are built on ambiguity.

At home, the US president has burnished his image as a cowboy Churchill - strident, dividing good and evil in black and white terms. As Secretary of State Colin Powell puts it, "What the president has said is, 'I'm calling it the way it is.' He did it in a very straightforward, direct, realistic way that tends to, you know, jangle people's nerves."

But Asian leaders worry how that tone will bounce around in the bell jars of their own regions, if Bush goes bellicose.

In the past two years, North Korea has gone from being a "rogue state" to a "state of concern." And now, as part of his war on terrorism, President Bush has declared North Korea part of an "axis of evil."

In South Korea, "people have been obsessed with the 'axis of evil' for weeks," says an American diplomat.

South Korean students this week briefly occupied and trashed the American Chamber of Commerce office here - shouting that Bush's hard line toward the North will only heighten tensions. So far on the Asia jaunt, Bush has not mentioned the "axis" word. Rather, he suggested that "freedom-loving countries" will help "change the behavior" of countries that support terror.

In China, leaders were shocked last spring when Bush said the US will "do whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan. For the Chinese, that was far too direct, wrecking the subtle ambiguities they prefer as they try to reclaim Taiwan.

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