March 25, 2012


[Mr. Obama expressed frustration that China, as the main patron of the North Korean government, had not done more to curb the North’s provocative behavior. He said he would raise the issue of China’s influence in a meeting on Monday with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao.]

By Mark Lander
President Obama looked through binoculars toward North Korea
from Observation Post Ouellette while touring the demilitarized
zone on the border between North and South Korea on Sunday.
PANMUNJOM, South Korea — President Obama warned North Korea on Sunday that its threats and provocations would only deepen its international isolation and jeopardize the resumption of American food aid, and he called on the North to scrap its plans to launch a satellite next month.

Squinting through binoculars from an observation post at the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, Mr. Obama got a firsthand look at North Korea. The North, with a new leader in place, briefly tantalized the United States weeks ago by raising the possibility of ending the standoff over its nuclear program, only to resume its usual defiance with the recent satellite announcement.

“They need to understand that bad behavior will not be rewarded,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference with South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, who is playing host to a nuclear security summit meeting that will include Mr. Obama and 50 other world leaders.

Mr. Lee also demanded that North Korea “repeal” the decision to launch the satellite, which is to be mounted on a long-range missile. Both he and Mr. Obama said it would breach North Korea’s obligations, since missile launchings are barred by United Nations sanctions.

Despite international condemnation, North Korea appears determined to press ahead with the satellite launching next month. On Sunday, the South Korean military said that North Korea had moved the main body of its Unha-3 rocket to the new launching station in Dongchang-ri, a village in northwestern North Korea.

Mr. Obama expressed frustration that China, as the main patron of the North Korean government, had not done more to curb the North’s provocative behavior. He said he would raise the issue of China’s influence in a meeting on Monday with the Chinese president, Hu Jintao.

“In the same way that North Korea needs to do something new if it wants to do right by its people,” Mr. Obama said, the Chinese must recognize that “the approach they’ve taken over the last several decades hasn’t led to a fundamental shift in North Korea’s behavior.”

The president made his comments on a day that brought home the intractable nature of the Korean conflict, as he tramped through guard posts and bunkers that date back six decades to the Korean War.

On the far side of the demilitarized zone, beyond the watchtowers and concertina wire that separate the North from the South, a giant red-and-blue North Korean flag billowed at half-staff, marking the 100th day since the death of Kim Jong-il, who led North Korea for 17 years.

It was Mr. Obama’s first visit to this heavily fortified border — Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan all made the trip — and it seemed both an echo of the cold war and a testament to the new dangers in an age of nuclear proliferation.

The agenda for the nuclear security summit meeting is ostensibly about preventing nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. But the motives and ambitions of countries like North Korea and Iran are likely to dominate the discussions.

North Korea’s talk of its satellite launching upended a fragile diplomatic opening to Kim Jong-il’s son and successor, Kim Jong-un. Analysts say North Korea appears to be reverting to a familiar cycle of provocations, perhaps as its untested leader tries to consolidate his power.

Mr. Obama declined to speculate about the younger Mr. Kim’s actions, saying, “It’s not clear exactly who’s calling the shots” in North Korea. Mr. Lee said he was disappointed because until the planned satellite launching, he expected Mr. Kim to take a path different from his father’s.

During his visit to the demilitarized zone, Mr. Obama paid tribute to the soldiers who have patrolled the border, saying they made it possible for South Korea to grow into a thriving democracy with a free-market economy despite the constant threat of war from the North.

“You guys are at freedom’s frontier,” the president said to the American troops in a dining hall at Camp Bonifas, an outpost of the United Nations command that oversees the zone. “The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer, could not be starker,” he added, “both in terms of freedom but also in terms of prosperity.”

There was time for jokes, too. Mr. Obama thanked the soldiers for giving him a “spiffy jacket,” and he drew laughs when he talked about how a slew of upsets in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament had made a hash of the brackets chosen by so many fans.

The president then greeted eight South Korean soldiers who keep watch at Observation Post Ouellette, one of the forward-most positions along the zone. As they waited for Mr. Obama to arrive, in a room with tightly drawn curtains and posters for target practice, the soldiers rehearsed their handshakes and barked greetings: “Very nice to meet you, sir.”

The pleasantries completed, Mr. Obama stepped into a chilly, windswept bunker, ringed by sandbags and camouflage burlap and shielded by a wall of two-inch-thick bulletproof glass, where he was handed binoculars to survey the bleak North Korea countryside.

As a military escort pointed out landmarks, Mr. Obama could be heard asking where the demarcation line was between the North and South in different directions, as well as the size of the nearby North Korean village, where the giant flag was flying.

Although the visit went smoothly, American officials warned that the North Koreans might sound a siren at noon to mark the 100-day milestone of the elder Mr. Kim’s death. Mr. Obama was at the observation post at that time, but no sirens were heard in the gusty wind.

The timing of Mr. Obama’s visit was also symbolic, coming a day before the second anniversary of the sinking of a South Korean Navy warship, the Cheonan. An international investigation concluded that the ship was torpedoed by the North, a charge that the North Koreans deny.

Administration officials said the visit to the zone, where some of the 28,500 American soldiers stationed in South Korea serve alongside Korean troops, was a way to honor the loss of the Cheonan, which they said had brought South Korea and the United States closer together.

After spending about an hour at the border, Mr. Obama’s helicopter headed back to Seoul, where he met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for discussions, mainly about Syria.

The two leaders conferred about a plan to provide aid, like medical supplies and communications equipment, to opponents of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea.


SEOUL — North Korea has moved a long-range rocket to a launching site, apparently determined to press ahead with its plan to launch a satellite in defiance of international condemnations, the South Korean military said Sunday.
The North Koreans moved the main body of the Unha-3 rocket to the newly built launching station in Dongchang-ri, a village in northwest North Korea, as President Barack Obama and other world leaders traveled to Seoul over the weekend for a nuclear security summit meeting. Mr. Obama visited the border with North Korea on Sunday to show solidarity with South Korea and warn the North against further provocations.
“North Korea has transported the body of its long-range missile to Dongchang-ri and is making preparations inside a building for the blastoff,” said Col. Lee Bung-woo, a spokesman of the South Korean Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Spy satellites have zoomed in on Dongchang-ri since North Korea announced earlier this month that it would celebrate the 100th birthday of its revered founder, Kim Il-sung, on April 15 by putting a satellite into orbit. It said the rocket would blast off from Dongchang-ri between April 12 and 16.
The launching plan drew swift censure from Washington and its allies, who believed that North Korea was using its satellite launching to test intercontinental ballistic missile technology. Besides Iran, the North’s announcement was expected to dominate sideline discussions by Mr. Obama and other leaders gathering in Seoul for the nuclear summit meeting.
South Korean officials said the North used a train to transport parts of the rocket to Dongchang-ri. The next moves will include assembling them and fueling the rocket, they said.
North Korea, which has launched satellites twice since 1998, says its launching is part of a peaceful space program. But Washington says that the launching would violate a 2009 U.N. Security Council resolution that prohibits the country from launching any rockets using long-range ballistic missile technology.
North Korea’s planned rocket launching and Mr. Obama’s first trip to the inter-Korean border came amid fears that North Korea might attempt military adventurism to help consolidate internal unity around the new regime taking shape with Kim Jong-un at the top of its hierarchy.
Mr. Kim, grandson of Kim Il-sung, took over after the sudden death of his father, the longtime North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, in December.
Kim Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, has yet to inherit the top state and party posts his father held, and some analysts say that is likely to happen in April. He assumed the other major post, supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, shortly after his father’s death.


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