The U.S. said it will consider delaying the handover to South Korea of wartime command of that country’s forces, citing the growing threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea.
“Given the evolving security environment in the region, including the enduring North Korean nuclear missile threat, we can reconsider the 2015 timeline” to transfer operational control, U.S. President Barack Obama said yesterday at a press conference in Seoul with President Park Geun Hye. “Together we will ensure that our alliance remains fully prepared for our mission.”
Park said it was too soon to give a potential new date for the handover. The U.S. had been pushing her government to stick to the December 2015 target to assume wartime control of its 640,000 troops. America maintains more than 28,000 soldiers in the South to help guard one of the world’s most-heavily armed borders, and the countries carry out annual drills that the North calls a rehearsal for invasion.
Obama arrived in Seoul yesterday on the second leg of a four-country Asian tour, amid signs that North Korea is preparing to conduct a fourth test of a nuclear device, in violation of United Nations resolutions. South Korea and the U.S. stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” in insisting Kim Jong Un renounce his nuclear ambitions before international talks can resume that could offer the North fresh aid, Obama said.
North Korea last tested a nuclear device in February 2013. The U.S. insists the North has not been able to “weaponize” a device and make it small enough to put on a missile that could be fired at the South or beyond.
“An arms race could be kindled” in Asia if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, Park said yesterday at the briefing with Obama. “The moral duty to oppose it also weakens.”
Obama’s efforts to show the U.S. commitment to its rebalancing to Asia was overshadowed by the Ukraine crisis and the president spent as much time discussing European as Asian issues during the 40-minute press conference.
Putin is increasingly viewing the world with a “Cold War prism,” Obama said. He is not a “stupid man” and will realize that further sanctions “will hurt,” he said.
Obama said his visit to South Korea came at a time of great sadness and offered his “deepest sympathies” over the deadly sinking of a ferry that left more than 300 people dead or missing. He presented Park with an American flag that flew over the White House the day of the sinking and brought a magnolia tree as a gift to the school that most of the victims attended.
Talks between the two leaders centered on how to prevent North Korea from advancing its goal to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon. North Korea isn’t just a threat to the U.S.’ allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, it poses a direct threat to America, Obama said.
“Some of the missile technology being developed, the nuclear weapons being developed when matched up with a thoroughly irresponsible foreign policy and the provocative approach by the North Korean regime, poses a threat to the United States,” he said.
Obama and Park met U.S. and South Korean troops and officers led by General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of the United Nations Command in South Korea.
U.S. and South Korean forces “work together everyday to ensure we deter North Korea,” Scaparrotti said during the meeting. “We train here every day to ensure we can respond to provocation and to crisis.”
South Korean Defense Ministry officials said this week that activity at North Korea’s underground test site at Punggye-ri signaled it may soon detonate a device, while recognizing the possibility the North may be bluffing. Commercial satellite imagery taken April 23 shows movement of vehicles and materials “probably related to preparations for a detonation,” said 38 North, a blog run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
“A fourth nuclear test by North Korea will fundamentally shake and change the landscape of Northeast Asian security and render meaningless efforts by China and others to restart six-party talks” aimed at coaxing North Korea to renounce its nuclear ambitions, Park said.
China as an ally of North Korea should use its influence to rein in the regime, she said, while Obama said China has “the most significant” effect on North Korea’s actions. He called China’s stance toward North Korea “encouraging.”
South Korea, Japan
Obama also urged South Korea and Japan to work together in the region, after a March summit between the three leaders in The Hague.
Park had previously rejected offers for direct talks, saying Abe’s administration has sought to deny atrocities committed during Japan’s 1910-1945 occupation of Korea, including the Imperial Army’s use of sex slaves. Park eased her stance after Abe told parliament on March 14 that he wouldn’t revise Japan’s 1993 apology for the military’s abuse of so-called comfort women.
Abe recognizes that “the past is something that has to be recognized honestly and fairly,” while it is in the interests of Japan and South Korea “to look forward as well as backwards,” Obama said.