Obama Urges Hu to Send Message to North Korea on Missile Launch

U.S. President Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama urged Chinese President Hu Jintao yesterday to use his country’s relationship with North Korea to send a strong message about Pyongyang’s planned satellite launch next month, U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.

Obama and Hu are among more than 40 world leaders in Seoul attending a two-day summit aimed at securing the world’s nuclear stockpiles to keep fissile material out of the hands of terrorists. Obama, who faces re-election later this year, is using this trip to increase pressure on North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs. The U.S. president also met yesterday with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The North Korean government has announced plans to put a satellite into orbit between April 12 and 16, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, on April 15. The U.S. sees the launch as a test of a missile that could carry an atomic warhead.

Obama made it clear to Hu that the proposed launch is in direct violation of existing agreements, Rhodes told reporters at a briefing yesterday. The two leaders “agreed to coordinate closely in responding to this potential provocation,” he said.

After Obama’s meeting with Medvedev, who will be succeeded by President-elect Vladimir Putin in May, television microphones picked up the U.S. president telling the Russian leader that he would have greater flexibility “after my election” in November to work on resolving Russian’s objections to a planned U.S. missile defense shield in Europe.

U.S. Nuclear Stockpile

The session with Medvedev followed a speech by Obama in which he committed to further reduce America’s nuclear weapons stockpile, saying that the U.S. had more nuclear arms than it needed and that doing so wouldn’t compromise national security.

Obama, who spoke at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said the U.S. would seek talks with Russia on steps to reduce their arsenals of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, as well as the number of warheads they have in reserve.

“I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal,” Obama said. “We can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need.”

The president said he had directed his national security team last summer to conduct a review of the country’s nuclear forces, recognizing that the nuclear arsenal inherited from the Cold War is “poorly suited to today’s threats including nuclear terrorism.”

U.S.-Russia Treaty

Under the terms of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that took effect last year, the U.S. and Russia would be limited to no more than 1,550 strategic warheads. It sets a maximum of 800 land-, air- and sea-based launchers.

Obama signed the treaty in April 2010 with Medvedev in Prague as part of a push to bolster relations between the two countries and reduce the spread of nuclear weapons worldwide.

A White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of Obama’s speech, said reducing stockpiles remains a priority for U.S.-Russia relations and that Obama would raise it with Putin when they meet in May.

In addition to his talks with Hu and Medvedev, Obama met yesterday with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. That country inherited the world’s fourth-largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the collapse of the Soviet Union and in 1991 renounced their use and relinquished them.

Iran, North Korea

In his speech yesterday, Obama said there was still time to solve the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program via diplomatic means. “But time is short,” he said.

“Iran’s leaders must understand they too face a choice,” Obama said. “Iran must act with the seriousness and sense of urgency that this moment demands. Iran must meet its obligations.”

Obama is trying 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.

Iran and North Korea were among the topics on the agenda for Hu and Obama. In his speech at the university, Obama said that while the U.S. had no hostile intent toward North Korea, provocations by the regime in Pyongyang wouldn’t be rewarded. “Those days are over,” he said.

During a March 25 news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama warned North Korea’s leaders that their plan to fire a long-range rocket next month undermined prospects for future negotiations and would make it difficult for the U.S. to proceed with a Feb. 29 aid deal whereby 240,000 metric tons of food would be delivered to the country.

The U.S. leader, who on March 25 visited the Demilitarized Zone on the border between the two countries divided since 1953, said Koreans would ultimately be reunited. “The currents of history cannot be held back forever,” he said in his speech yesterday.

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