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Obama Talks tough to Force North Korea to Abandon its Rocket Launch

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

President Barack Obama inveighed against North Korea’s plan to launch a long-range rocket next month in a rousing speech at a university here and then pleaded with the Chinese and Russian presidents to pressure North Korea to back down.

In a special touch of drama midway through his talk at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Obama declared, “Here in Korea, I want to speak directly to the leadership in Pyongyang.”

The U.S., he said, “has no hostile intent toward your country,” is “committed to peace” and “prepared to take steps to improve relations” __ the reason, he said, “we have offered nutritional aid to North Korean mothers and children.”

Dangling the promise of food aid like a bait, Obama warned the North Koreans, “Know this __ there will be no more rewards for provocations.”

The clear inference was the U.S. would hold back on shipping 240,000 tons of emergency food aid, as agreed between U.S. and North Korean envoys in Beijing on February 29, if North Korea broke its promise of a moratorium on long-range missile launches and nuclear tests, also agreed on in the talks.

At the same time, South Korea’s President Lee Myung vowed to “thoroughly retaliate against North Korea" if provoked by North Korea. South Korean defense ministry officials said two Aegis-class submarines, equipped with advanced radar and missiles, would shoot down the North Korean rocket if it veered over South Korean waters on a trajectory that’s expected to carry it south of Japan into the South Pacific.

Adding to the drama, South Korean leaders observed the second anniversary of the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in which 46 sailors died. Obama and South Korean leaders paid homage to the victims __ further evidence of North Korean provocations though North Korea has denied responsibility for the sinking by a torpedo fired by a submarine.

Alarm over North Korea’s determination to go through with the plan to launch a rocket dominated talk on the sidelines of the summit. By the time the whole show winds down Tuesday the summiteers will have agreed on a declaration against all forms of nuclear terrorism that says not a word about the issues that are dominating the entire gathering, the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.

Obama’s most important sessions were backstage sessions with China’s President Hu Jintao and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev in which he pressed them both to get North Korea to cancel the plan for the nuclear test and honor the “moratorium” that the U.S. believed was achieved in talks between U.S. and North Korean envoys on February 29.

He elicited expressions of “concern,” even a reported denunciation from Medvedev of the North Korean plan but no real commitment to do much about it other than to urge the North Koreans to focus on much needed “development.”

For all the talk, the sense persists that North Korea has to fire the rocket to celebrate the centennial on April 15 of the birth of founding leader Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the new young leader, Kim Jong-un, whose father, Kim Jong-il had planned to fire the rocket before dying in December.

After the hullabaloo over the rocket has died down, analysts predict North Korea will return to a talking mode. The North Koreans will go on insisting the reason they launched a rocket was to put a satellite into orbit even though physicists here say the same rocket can deliver a warhead.

Obama was also anxious to get across the urgency of persuading Iran to cease and desist from developing its own nuclear warheads. “There is time to solve this diplomatically, but time is short,” he said. Iran’s leaders must understand that there is no escaping the choice before it.”

Iran, he promised, would also come up in his talks with Chinese and Russian leaders.

Obama’s talks with Medvedev were particularly dicey considering that Vladimir Putin, emerging from a hiatus as prime minister, is about to take over again as president. Painfully aware of Putin’s objections to the array of NATO missiles pointed toward Russia, he said missile defense “should be an area of cooperation, not tension.”

That sentiment, however, led to the biggest flub of the summit so far __ Obama’s remark to Medvedev, when he thought the microphones were turned off, that he pould like to put off discussion on missile defense until after the presidential election in November.

“This is my last election,” he reminded Medvedev. “After my election I have more flexibility.” The words, “my last election,” was sure to provide fodder for foes campaigning to make sure it’s indeed just that. 

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