President Barack Obama brings along the agenda of his re-election campaign when he travels to Seoul next week for a two-day summit on the threat of loose nuclear material.
Obama plans to arrive on March 25, a day before the summit and early enough to visit the demilitarized zone between South and North Korea, the last Cold War frontier. Then he holds a news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, a chance to highlight the economic benefits of a free-trade accord that took effect last week.
After those events, Obama will turn his focus to the issues of nuclear materials smuggling and the weapons programs in North Korea and Iran.
Victor Cha, who was director of Asian affairs on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council, said summit’s timing so soon after the South Korea trade deal’s effective date allows Obama to “toot the jobs horn.”
“It’ll give him an opportunity to talk about that and what it will mean in terms of overall U.S. exports and jobs,” said Cha, now a professor at Georgetown University and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. While Obama’s effort to secure nuclear materials has a positive message, “It won’t resonate that much for a domestic audience.”
The summit itself, on March 26-27, bring together 53 countries and four international organizations. Who’s not there might be as important: Neither North Korea nor Iran will be attending.
North Korea’s Rocket
North Korea has announced a mid-April rocket launch, potentially scuttling a Feb. 29 U.S. aid deal and broader efforts to get the regime back to negotiations on its nuclear weapons program.
Iran, under international sanctions, has said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and refuses to halt development. The U.S. is urging Israel to hold off on any pre-emptive military strike and give international sanctions more time to work.
The sanctions and the threat of war in the Persian Gulf region is helping drive up energy prices. Crude oil for May delivery increased $1.20 to settle at $107.27 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices have risen 8.5 percent this year. Obama’s opponents have sought to turn that to their advantage as Republican presidential candidates seek to to turn voter frustration about gas prices against the president.
Obama will portray the U.S.-South Korea free-trade agreement as a boon to U.S. jobs and part of a growing American economic and security involvement with allies in Asia.
Tariffs Cut 80 Percent
The biggest U.S. trade accord in almost two decades will cut about 80 percent of tariffs between the nations 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.
The North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs will be ever present as Obama makes public appearances and holds private discussions with other world leaders attending the Nuclear Security Summit, White House officials said.
Obama has scheduled individual meetings in Seoul with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and South Korea’s Lee among others.
Russia and China, along with Japan and South Korea, are part of six-party negotiations on North Korea and are key partners in efforts to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon.
“We can’t hold Iran or North Korea accountable for commitments made at a summit in which they didn’t participate,” said Corey Hinderstein, vice president for international programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based research center. That, Hinderstein said, is “the elephant outside the room.”
At the summit, countries will announce what they’ve done to fulfill commitments to combat nuclear trafficking and secure or dispose of nuclear materials. It is the second of its kind, following one in Washington in 2010. Another is set for 2014.
The meetings grew out of a 2009 speech by Obama on the threat of nuclear terrorism. The Nobel Committee cited that speech among its reasons for awarding the U.S. president the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office.
Obama’s attempts to reach out to North Korea have been “a reality check on how this sort of reaching out with the unclenched fist is not so easy to do,” Cha said. Early efforts were followed by hostile acts by North Korea. Obama’s “had a real learning experience on North Korea,” Cha said.
Kim Jong Un became leader last December after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
North Korea Pact
On Feb. 29, North Korea agreed to halt nuclear and missile tests in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid. The accord opened the possibility of the resumption of six-party talks to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.
That was all but scuttled when the regime announced a planned rocket launch between April 12-16, around the time of the April 15 centennial of the birth of Kim Il Sung.
These themes are unfolding as Obama, domestically, has turned his attention toward the November election.
The trip follows weeks of speeches and trips during which Obama has defended his energy policies amid rising gasoline prices.
Republican presidential candidates have made these issues central to their criticisms of the president’s economic and foreign policy records.
Mark McKinnon, a Republican political strategist who advised former President George W. Bush, said Obama will try to use the Korea trip to his advantage even if the substance of the summit isn’t a topic U.S. voters are especially focused on.
“The best re-election strategy is to be an effective president,” McKinnon said. “And with tensions running high on nuclear security, it is good policy and good politics for President Obama to be seen as an effective international player at the summit.”
Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a onetime political aide to former president Bill Clinton who now is advising an independent campaign group that will raise money for the 2012 contest, said Americans like to see U.S. presidents “leading the world.” Obama can juxtapose that against his opponents “stuck in campaign mode, pandering to conservative constituencies,” he said.
“If gas prices are going to harm the president’s political standing, then they will do so regardless of whether the president remains in Washington to absorb the abuse or is in Seoul to absorb the abuse long distance,” said Bill Galston, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, who was a Clinton domestic policy adviser.
Obama’s visit to the DMZ is scheduled one day shy of the anniversary of the March 26, 2010, sinking of a South Korean naval vessel that killed 46 sailors. An international investigation blamed North Korea.
Obama will use the DMZ visit to underscore U.S. support for South Korea and his support for 28,500 U.S. forces there. He will signal to North Korea that “there is a path” for the regime to have “a better relationship with the international community,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
While Obama gets his highest approval ratings for how he handles foreign policy and terrorism, the economy still ranks as the number one issue for voters in this election, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 8-11.
Sixty-one percent of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of terrorism and 54 percent approve of how he’s maintained relations with other countries. Only one percent of Americans said terrorism was the number one issue for voters.
“The most ironic thing about public opinion and Obama is that here we are at the end of his first term where his foreign policy ratings are just much better than ratings for dealing with domestic issues,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington.