President Barack Obama and South Korean President Park Geun Hye said North Korea’s regime is too unpredictable to know whether Kim Jong Un is ready to ratchet down tensions and they vowed his threats won’t win concessions.
Park and Obama, at a news conference yesterday after they met at the White House, declined to comment on reports that North Korea had pulled medium-range missiles from a launch site, a possible move by Kim to step back from his recent threats and provocations.
“North Korea is isolated at the moment, so it’s hard to find anyone that could really accurately fathom the situation in North Korea,” Park said. “Its actions are all so very unpredictable.”
Obama said he doesn’t know Kim and “can’t really give you an opinion about his personal characteristics. What we do know is the actions that he’s taken have been provocative and seem to pursue a dead end.”
Park, three months into her presidency, is making her first foreign trip to mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S.-South Korean alliance. The two nations are seeking to expand cooperation on trade and energy as well as security. Park will address the U.S. Congress today.
She and Obama sought to show a solid front on North Korea, with Obama saying the two long-time allies are “as united as ever.”
The U.S. and South Korea have been in a standoff with Kim’s regime since February, when it tested a nuclear weapon in defiance of United Nations sanctions and then threatened atomic strikes.
Last week, the last remaining South Korean workers left the Gaeseong industrial zone jointly run by the two Koreas, severing one of the last channels of inter-Korean contact. North Korea also sentenced a U.S. citizen to 15 years hard labor for unidentified crimes committed after he entered the country last year as a tourist.
Kim’s regime ratcheted up its rhetoric against the U.S. and South Korea following the February nuclear test. Last month, it said developing nuclear weapons is a top priority. Earlier, it said there was a “state of war” with South Korea. It cut a cross-border hotline, and it has threatened pre-emptive nuclear strikes in response to U.S.-South Korea military drills.
Park said North Korea has “no choice but to change” and urged the world to send a message that the communist country would be rewarded if it drops its nuclear ambitions.
Both leaders vowed that Kim won’t be allowed to wring concessions from other nations by making threats. Obama also warned that that the U.S. is ready to back its allies in any military confrontation.
The U.S. “is fully prepared and capable of defending ourselves and our allies with the full range of capabilities available, including the deterrence provided by our conventional and nuclear forces,” Obama said.
Park’s visit also is an opportunity for Obama to keep the momentum going during a high point of relations between the U.S. and South Korea, and at a time the U.S. is seeking participants in a multination Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.
The U.S.-South Korea free trade accord took effect in March 2012, five years after it was first agreed to by former Presidents George W. Bush and Roh Moo Hyun.
South Korea was the seventh biggest U.S. trading partner in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, with exports and imports totaling $101 billion.
The U.S. trade deficit with South Korea was $1.3 billion in March, compared with $551 million a year earlier, according to figures from the U.S. Census bureau. The value of U.S. exports to South Korea in March declined to $3.85 billion from $4.2 billion at the same time last year.
Obama’s rapport with Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, was on display in sealing the U.S.-South Korea free trade accord that went into effect 14 months ago.
“What I think this summit will really be about, in addition to the issues, is building a relationship,” Victor Cha, senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy center, said in a briefing last week.
“She has big shoes to fill,” Cha said of Park. Obama “really did like Lee Myung-bak, and so I think there will be an effort to try to build or replicate, perhaps in a different fashion, the same sort of personal relationship.”
The U.S. and Korea also discussed civilian nuclear policy, cost sharing for U.S. forces and a phase-out of combined forces command set for 2015.
Park is accompanied by a delegation of Korean business leaders. She traveled to Washington from New York, where she met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
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