President Barack Obama stared across the demilitarized zone into North Korea today as Kim Jong Un’s regime prepared for a rocket launch that may help it put an atomic weapon atop a missile.
As Obama returned to Seoul for bilateral meetings with world leaders touching on Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Kim’s military had moved the fuselage of a long-range missile to an indoor launch site in the nation’s northwest.
The president will meet Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev and China’s Hu Jintao during his three-day visit to the South Korean capital for a nuclear security summit that starts tomorrow and is aimed at keeping fissile material out of the hands of terrorists. Obama said China “is going to have to act” to help stop Kim from developing nuclear weapons.
“North Korea will achieve nothing by threats or by provocations,” the U.S. leader said at a press conference with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak. Obama said looking into North Korea was like viewing “a time warp” of a half-century of missed progress.
There are 28,500 U.S. forces in South Korea, facing off against a North Korean military that has placed 70 percent of its ground forces within 90 kilometers of the DMZ, including about 250 long-range artillery systems capable of striking the Seoul area, according to U.S. Forces Korea.
“Long-range rocket launches are worrisome because they could improve North Korea’s weapons technology, serving as a chance to test missile systems that can carry nuclear warheads,” said Koh Yu Hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
Obama met Leeat the presidential Blue House less than two weeks after the two nations’ free-trade pact came into effect and as their militaries continue war games aimed at deterring any aggression from the regime in Pyongyang.
“The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer,” Obama told troops at Camp Bonifas on the edge of the DMZ. “Both in terms of freedom but also in terms of prosperity.”
The president stopped for about 10 minutes at Observation Post Ouellette, within 100 yards (90 meters) of the demarcation line that was drawn at the end of the Korean War in 1953. U.S. and South Korean troops make foot patrols from the post, which has four guard towers and underground bunkers.
Obama gazed through binoculars into North Korea, where guard posts, the industrial complex at Gaeseong and sparsely vegetated hillsides and fields are visible from Ouellette. South Korean manufacturers employ North Korean workers at the Gaeseong complex, which has kept running even as political tensions rise.
A North Korean flag flew at half mast in the distance as the totalitarian regime today marked 100 days since the death of Kim Jong Il.
Obama and Lee said they weren’t prepared to make strategic assessments of Kim Jong Un while the U.S. President added that North Korea’s long-term objectives weren’t clear and it was difficult to see “who’s calling the shots” in the country.
North Korea is not a participant in the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul. It described the event as a platform for an “international smear campaign” against it, according to a statement on March 23 carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
South Korea was the U.S.’s seventh-largest goods trading partner, with $88 billion in total goods trade for 2010, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
The free-trade agreement between the two nations is the biggest for the U.S. in almost two decades. It will cut about 80 percent of tariffs between them and may increase U.S. exports as much as $10.9 billion in the first year it’s in full effect, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.
This is Obama’s third visit to South Korea since taking office in 2009. Previous U.S. presidents to visit the DMZ were Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
He is also using his meeting with world leaders to ratchet up economic pressure on Iran in an effort to persuade it to abandon any illicit part of its nuclear program.
The U.S., Europe and Israel have accused Iran of seeking the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Iran says its program is for civilian energy and medical research.
North Korea’s announcement of a mid-April rocket launch will make it difficult for the U.S. to move forward with a Feb. 29 U.S. aid deal and broader efforts to get the regime back to negotiations on its nuclear weapons program, Obama said.
It had agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests and the U.S. was to begin providing 240,000 metric tons of food aid.
The planned rocket launch is designed to put a satellite into orbit and is “an issue quite different” from the Feb. 29 agreement, an unidentified spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement on KCNA on March 23.
North Korea will “inevitably” be compelled to take countermeasures against “any sinister attempt” to hinder its planned rocket launch, the spokesman said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Julianna Goldman at the DMZ at firstname.lastname@example.org; Margaret Talev in Seoul at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at firstname.lastname@example.org