Obama Affirms Alliance With S. Korea Amid Rising Tensions

Amid rising tensions with North Korea, U.S. President Barack Obama Tuesday assured visiting South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak that Washington was firmly committed to their nearly 60-year alliance and their mutual determination not to yield to Pyongyang’s demands that it be recognized as a nuclear power.

"We have not come to a conclusion that North Korea will or should be a nuclear power," Obama said during a joint press appearance with Lee in the White House Rose Garden.

"Given their past behavior, given the belligerent manner in which they are constantly threatening their neighbors, I don’t think there’s any question that [recognition of their status as a nuclear power] would be a destabilizing situation that would be a profound threat to not only the United States’ security, but to world security," he said.

At the same time, he stressed that Washington remains open to engaging North Korea diplomatically if it reaffirms its commitment to verifiably dismantling and abandoning its nuclear-weapons programs in the context of the Six-Party Talks that includes China, Japan, and Russia, as well as the U.S. and South Korea.

"I want to be clear that there is another path available to North Korea, a path that leads to peace and economic opportunity for the people of North Korea, including full integration into the community of nations," Obama said. "That destination can only be reached through peaceful negotiations that achieve the full and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

Tuesday’s summit included the publication of a "Joint Vision for the Alliance of the United States of America and the Republic of Korea," that covered a range of issues from the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty to "working together to chart a way forward" on a controversial Korea-U.S. (KORUS) Free Trade Agreement.

It comes amid a new escalation of tensions throughout Northeast Asia sparked most recently by an underground nuclear test conducted by the North three weeks ago and followed by a series of missile launches.

After heavy lobbying by the U.S., Japan and South Korea, the UN Security Council, including China and Russia, responded June 12 by unanimously approving new sanctions against Pyongyang that called, among other things, for UN members to inspect cargo vessels and airplanes suspected of transporting military or nuclear-related equipment in or out of North Korea in violation of previous Council resolutions.

At the same time, Seoul announced it will formally join the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), a U.S.-created multilateral initiative that gives its members license to interdict ships and aircraft believed to be carrying proscribed materials.

Pyongyang, in turn, pledged to take "firm military action if the United States and its allies try to isolate us" and continue converting its plutonium stockpiles into nuclear weapons. Earlier this month, it also sentenced two Asian-American women arrested close to the North Korean-Chinese border while working on a film about female trafficking to 12 years of hard labor.

Pyongyang’s actions have been seen as related to a succession crisis brought on last summer after the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, suffered a debilitating stroke. Kim is widely believed to be trying to secure the succession for his youngest son in part by pandering to the regime’s hard-liners, particularly the military, who have long been skeptical about his tentative moves toward liberalizing the economy and opening it to Western, especially South Korean, investment.

But they have also convinced most administration and independent experts – some of whom had long believed that Kim was willing to abandon his nuclear program in exchange for massive economic aid and full normalization of ties with the U.S. – that the North in fact has no intention of pursuing such a course and instead is seeking to be recognized as a nuclear state, especially by the U.S., on a par with India.

"North Korea doesn’t just want the bomb," wrote Victor Cha, a Korea specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who negotiated with Pyongyang in the Six-Party Talks, in the Washington Post Sunday. "It wants to be accorded the status and prestige of a nuclear power."

While Pyongyang is willing to accept some safeguards and inspections under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Cha wrote, it "would want to keep part of its nuclear program beyond the reach of the international inspectors, serving, in the North’s eyes, as a nuclear deterrent."

But, in his remarks Tuesday, Obama stated forcefully that Washington will "never" recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear power and, moreover, that it is determined to increase pressure through the enforcement of sanctions against the North so long as Pyongyang engages in "belligerent, provocative behavior."

"There’s been a pattern in the past where North Korea behaves in a belligerent fashion, and, if it waits long enough, is then rewarded with foodstuffs and fuel and concessionary loans and a whole range of benefits," he said. "The message we’re sending – and, when I say ‘we,’ not simply the United States and the Republic of Korea, but I think the international community – is we are going to break that pattern."

At the same time, Obama asserted that Washington was prepared to take tougher measures to enforce the latest Security Council resolution.

Tuesday’s New York Times reported that his administration had adopted a policy under which the U.S. Navy will be ordered to hail and request permission to inspect North Korean suspected of carrying arms or nuclear technology, a step just short of the kind of forcible interdiction that Pyongyang has warned would be considered an act of war.

If the ship did not agree, according to the Times account, Washington would track it to port and strongly urge the host government to carry out an inspection.

"Well, this is not simply a U.S. policy … this was part of what the Security Council resolution calls for – the interdiction of arms shipments," Obama said. "How that’s going to be implemented, how we approach cooperation between various countries to enforce this, is something that the United States, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan… all relevant actors will be discussing in the months to come."

For his part, Lee expressed strong support for Obama’s position, noting that Seoul agreed "to robustly implement UN Security Council Resolution 1874." He also asserted that Obama had "reaffirmed [Washington’s] firm commitment to ensuring the security of South Korea through extended deterrence, which includes the nuclear umbrella, and this has given the South Korean people a greater sense of security."

Strategically, both sides appeared to get what they wanted from the meeting, according to Alan Romberg, a Northeast Asia specialist at the Henry L. Stimson Center who noted the importance to Lee of the reaffirmation of Washington’s military commitment to Seoul and, in return, Seoul’s strong commitment to enforcing the latest UN resolution.

Even on KORUS FTA, he said, "The body language was positive," even as Obama stressed that the agreement would have to overcome major political obstacles in both capitals.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.