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Obama Warns North Korea Rocket Endangers Negotiations

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama, center left, uses binoculars as he looks at North Korea from Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in the inter-Korean truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea. Source: Pool/Yonhap News via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama warned North Korea its plan to fire a long-range rocket undermined prospects for future negotiations as the military in Seoul said Kim Jong Un’s forces had moved the missile to its launch site.

Obama, who peered through binoculars into the North as he toured the Demilitarized Zone yesterday, spoke at a meeting in the South Korean capital with President Lee Myung Bak. He’ll hold talks today with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao as they gather for a nuclear security summit aimed at keeping fissile material out of the hands of terrorists.

Kim, who took over when his father Kim Jong Il died in December, is putting at risk 240,000 metric tons of food aid from the U.S. even as many of his people go hungry. Obama, who faces an election this year, is using his trip to increase pressure on North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs.

The rocket launch “would constitute a direct violation” of North Korea’s commitments and obligations and “seriously undermine the prospects of future negotiations,” Obama said. “North Korea will achieve nothing by threats or by provocations.”

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.

‘Weapons Technology’

“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 said during his news conference with Lee that he will press China’s Hu in their meeting to take a tougher stance toward North Korea to fulfill its international obligations and move toward denuclearization. North Korea is dependent on energy and food assistance from China, which has sought to support its neighbor to avoid unrest that could hinder trade and prompt a wave of refugees across its border.

“My suggestion to China is that how they communicate their concerns to North Korea should probably reflect the fact that the approach they’ve taken over the last several decades hasn’t led to a fundamental shift in North Korea’s behavior,” Obama said.

Chinese Concern

Hu expressed concern over North Korea’s planned rocket launch during a meeting today with South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, according to Kim Tae Hyo, South Korea’s senior secretary for national security strategy. Kim said the Chinese leader told Lee that his country is “continuously communicating” with North Korea to prevent the liftoff.

Obama met Lee at the presidential Blue House yesterday 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.

Guard Posts

Obama looked 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.

It was like peering into “a time warp” of a half-century of missed progress, Obama said at his press conference with Lee.

A North Korean flag flew at half mast in the distance as the totalitarian regime yesterday marked 100 days since the death of Kim Jong Il.

Lee and Obama said they weren’t prepared to make strategic assessments of Kim Jong Un. Obama 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.

‘Smear Campaign’

North Korea and Iran aren’t participants in the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, where the focus will be on preventing radioactive material from getting into the hands of terror groups. The legacy of the Soviet Union’s breakup, inadequate atomic stockpile controls and the proliferation of nuclear-fuel technology mean the world may be awash with unaccounted-for weapons ingredients, ripe to be picked up by terrorists.

North Korea 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 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.

Pressure on Iran

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 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. The South Korean and U.S. militaries are aware that North Korea has moved the fuselage of a long-range missile to an indoor launch site at Tongchang-ri in the nation’s northwest, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told reporters in Seoul yesterday.

South Korea’s defense ministry estimated the cost of the rocket launch at approximately $800 million, spokesman Kim Min Seok told reporters today in Seoul, without providing further details.

The aim is to put a satellite into orbit and this 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.

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