SEOUL, South Korea - Despite a symbolic symphonic thaw with North Korea, the only music the Bush administration is making here is with South Korea's new, pro-U.S. president who has vowed a tougher line on his Stalinist neighbor.
On the eve of a landmark performance in Pyongyang by the New York Philharmonic, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was next door in Seoul on Monday lauding President Lee Myung-bak and his intent to hold North Korea to its pledge to abandon nuclear weapons.
With attention focused on the orchestra, Rice pointedly ignored the unprecedented event that some have dubbed "violin diplomacy," and instead went out of her way twice to compliment Lee on his choice of the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to end his swearing-in ceremony.
In two brief encounters before reporters, the classically trained pianist first hailed "the universal strains of Beethoven performed so beautifully" by South Korean musicians and a choir and then told Lee himself the selection was "beautiful."
By contrast, Rice last week said she was pleased the Philharmonic would be playing a work by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak in Pyongyang, but dismissed the concert, saying: "I don't think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea."
In Seoul, Rice also noted the United States and South Korea share deep "strategic interests" and "common values" like democracy and praised Lee's inaugural address in which he promised to "strengthen our strategic alliance with the United States" and demanded openness from the North.
In his speech, Lee told South Koreans, and by extension Koreans in the North, that only "once North Korea abandons its nuclear program and chooses the path to openness" can people expect to see "a new horizon in inter-Korean cooperation."
Rice declined to answer questions about her private discussions with Lee and incoming South Korean foreign minister Yu Myung-hwan, but senior officials from both sides said that what she heard was, well, music to her ears.
"We welcome this," said Christopher Hill, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, referring to Lee's plan to put a more critical eye on Seoul's policy of detente with the North than his two immediate predecessors.
They were accused of showering unconditional aid and concessions on North Korea as part of reconciliation efforts while getting little in return, something that had vexed Washington.
"President Lee said he would do all he could to strengthen (U.S.-South Korean) cooperation in the six-party process," Hill told reporters.
He referred to the group of six nations — the United States, South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and North Korea — trying to negotiate an end to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons development.
Meanwhile, a South Korean presidential spokesman said Lee had told Rice that he "will make the denuclearization a top principle" of his administration.
The disarmament process made major progress in the past year after Pyongyang shut down its main nuclear reactor and began disabling key atomic facilities.
The talks, however, have been deadlocked for months over whether the North has fulfilled its commitment to account for all of its nuclear programs as it committed to do in the six-party talks by Dec. 31, 2007, a deadline that passed nearly two months ago.
The North says it has already provided the declaration, but Washington says Pyongyang has not yet given a complete accounting, particularly about alleged transfers of nuclear equipment and know-how to other countries.
Rice is in South Korea on the first leg of a three-nation Asia tour that takes her to China on Tuesday and Japan on Wednesday for talks that will be dominated by the North Korea issue.
But while Rice will be seeing the key players in the process from China, Japan and South Korea on her trip, before she left Washington she ruled out any talks with North Korean officials, saying such a meeting was neither warranted nor could be of any use in the current circumstances.
"We need a complete declaration from the North Koreans," she said on Friday. "North Korea is quite aware of what it needs to do."