Obama's Korea Pledge Sends Message to Europe on Ukraine

President Barack Obama told troops in South Korea the U.S. “will not hesitate” to use military force to defend allies, using remarks originally fashioned for an Asian audience to also send signals to Europe in the face of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“When our friends are in trouble America helps,” Obama told troops gathered today at Yongsan Garrison, headquarters for U.S. forces in South Korea. “Our alliance does not waver.”

Standing just 35 miles from the North Korean border, Obama concluded his visit with more criticism of what U.S. officials have called the northern neighbor’s “increasingly belligerent” actions.

Obama spoke moments after leaders of the Group of Seven nations announced they had agreed to escalate sanctions against Russia over efforts to destablize eastern Ukraine. The conflict in eastern Europe has loomed over the first two stops of Obama’s four-country swing through the Asia-Pacific region.

During his visit, Obama announced yesterday that the U.S. will consider delaying the handover to South Korea of wartime command of that country’s forces amid growing instability brought on by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s regime.

The alliance between the U.S. and South Korea “only grows stronger in the face of aggression” by North Korea, he said. The growing threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea was the central topic of Obama’s visit with President Park Geun Hye, with whom he participated in the first joint briefing by the U.S.-South Korea Combined Forces Command.

‘Make Threats’

“Anyone can make threats; anyone can move an army,” Obama said in rhetoric that also carried overtones for the conflict with Russia over Ukraine.

In response to rising tensions in Ukraine, the G-7 accelerated its plans to impose penalties after Russia renewed military exercises on its neighbor’s border and explosions in two Ukrainian cities wounded eight.

“Given the urgency of securing the opportunity for a successful and peaceful democratic vote next month in Ukraine’s presidential elections, we have committed to act urgently to intensify targeted sanctions and measures to increase the costs of Russia’s actions,” said the statement released by the White House moments before Obama’s remarks in Korea.

“We will move swiftly to impose additional sanctions on Russia,” said the statement issued on behalf of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. as well as the presidents of the European Council and European Commission.

Annual Drills

In South Korea, the U.S. had been pushing Park’s 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.

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. Obama’s arrival yesterday came amid signs that the country is preparing to conduct a fourth test of a nuclear device, in violation of United Nations resolutions.

Park, in a joint press conference yesterday, said a fourth nuclear test by North Korea “will fundamentally shake and change the landscape of Northeast Asian Security and render meaningless” efforts to restart the six-party talks aimed at coaxing North Korea to renounce its nuclear ambitions.

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