News Column

Obama Goes to Korea And Warns North Over Satellite

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North Korea's threats and provocations put U.S. aid at risk, the president said on a visit to the demilitarized zone.

President Barack Obama warned North Korea on Sunday that its threats and provocations would only deepen its international isolation and jeopardize the resumption of U.S. 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, which had briefly tantalized the United States just weeks ago by raising the possibility of ending the standoff over its nuclear program with a new leader in place, only to resume its usual defiant stance with the recent satellite announcement.

"They need to understand that bad behavior will not be rewarded," Mr. Obama said, referring to the North Koreans at a news conference with the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, who is hosting 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 men said it would breach North Korea's obligations, since its missile launchings are barred by U.N. sanctions.

Despite the international condemnation, North Korea appears determined to press ahead with the satellite launching next month. On Sunday, the South Korean military said North Korea had moved the main body of its Unha-3 rocket to the newly built 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 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's comments came on a day that brought home the intractable nature of the Korean conflict, as he tromped through guard posts and bunkers that date from the Korean War six decades ago.

On the far side of the demilitarized zone, beyond the watchtowers and the concertina wire that separates 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 trek -- and it seemed both an echo of the Cold War and a testament to new dangers in an age of nuclear proliferation.

The agenda for a nuclear security summit meeting, first held by Mr. Obama in 2010, is ostensibly about preventing nuclear materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. But the motives and ambitions of states like North Korea and Iran are likely to dominate the discussions.

North Korea's talk of a 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 on the younger Mr. Kim, saying that "it's not clear exactly who's calling the shots" in North Korea.

Mr. Lee said he was disappointed because until the plans for the satellite launching were announced, he had 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 this frontier, 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 U.S. troops in a dining hall at Camp Bonifas, an outpost of the U.N. command that oversees the zone. "The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer, could not be starker, both in terms of freedom but also in terms of prosperity."

There was time for levity, too. Mr. Obama thanked the soldiers for giving him a "spiffy jacket," and he drew laughs when he talked about how a skein of upsets in the N.C.A.A. men's basketball tournament had made a hash of the brackets chosen by amateur bettors.

The president then greeted eight South Korean soldiers who keep watch at Observation Post Ouellette, one of the posts closest to the North. 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 out into a chilly, windswept bunker, ringed by sandbags and camouflage burlap and shielded by 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 line of demarcation 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.

U.S. officials warned that the North Koreans might sound a siren at noon to mark the 100th day since the death of Mr. Kim. 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 the North Koreans deny.

Administration officials said the visit to the zone, where some of the 28,500 U.S. troops 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 as allies.

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 nonlethal aid, including medical supplies and communications equipment, to opponents of President Bashar al-Assad's government, said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.

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