Allies up press on N.K. to scrap rocket launch plan

Lee, Obama say Pyongyang will get nothing from it, but face deeper isolation

The leaders of South Korea and the U.S. raised pressure on North Korea on Sunday to withdraw its plan to launch a satellite on a long-range rocket next month, stressing that the communist state would achieve “nothing from the provocative act.”

President Lee Myung-bak and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama discussed regional security and other bilateral issues during their summit talks held a day before the beginning of the two-day Nuclear Security Summit.

U.S. President Barack Obama is briefed by military officers at the Observation Post Ouellette in the Demilitarized Zone near the Panmunjeom Joint Security Area on Sunday. Obama arrived in Korea for the Nuclear Security Summit that begins Monday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

“The real consequence, should they go forward with the launch, is they will have missed an opportunity ... an opportunity for them to take a different path from the one they have been taking, which has resulted in not just hardships for its people, but a state that is decades behind their counterparts in the region,” Obama said during a joint press conference.

Earlier this month, the North announced the launch plan intended to mark the centennial birthday of its late founder Kim Il-sung, falling on April 15.

Observers say it is a cover for testing its Taepodong-2 ballistic missile presumed to have a range of more than 6,700 kilometers, far enough to hit parts of Alaska, but still incapable of reaching the U.S. mainland.

Obama also made it clear that should the North press ahead with the plan, it would be difficult to offer the “nutritional aid” package Washington pledged last month in a breakthrough deal with Pyongyang.

“We’ve indicated to them very directly ... that it will be difficult to move forward with that package, if they’ve shown themselves unable to make commitments they made even a month earlier,” he said.

As a pre-step for the resumption of the multilateral denuclearization talks, Pyongyang agreed on Feb. 29 to temporarily halt its uranium enrichment at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon and put a moratorium on missile and nuclear tests in exchange for 240,000 tons of “nutritional assistance.”

Obama also indicated that the U.S. would have a stringent monitoring system in place should it offer any aid to the impoverished state, presaging tough negotiations with Pyongyang.

“A part of the challenge for any nutrition aid package is that you make sure it actually goes to the people that actually need it, and it doesn’t go to the some elites in the country or their military. That requires monitors. It’s very difficult to have monitors in the period of tension and friction,” he said.

Obama repeated that the North would not be rewarded for “bad behavior.”

“Every time North Korea has violated international resolutions, it’s resulted in further isolation, tightening of sanctions, stronger enforcement, a greater support on the part of the international community for enforcement. I suspect that will happen this time as well,” he said.

President Lee stressed that there are no differences between the allies concerning how to deal with North Korean issues, saying that he would handle them in a “wise, calm” manner.

“It will not be able to achieve any benefits, both domestically and internationally, through the rocket launch. I want to say that that will, at last, result in its further isolation,” Lee said.

Touching on the ongoing bilateral consultations over revising a bilateral missile pact to allow Seoul to have longer-range ballistic missiles, Obama appeared reluctant to be straightforward, saying it was a working-level issue.

“There are no specific pre-conditions, specific obstacles, around the missile range issue. Rather, it’s a broader question of what are the needs in order for us to fulfill our enduring goals around the alliance,” he said. “A lot of that is technical, a lot of that takes place not at the presidential level, but rather at the military level.”

Under a 2001 revision to the initial agreement, signed in 1979, Seoul is banned from developing ballistic missiles with a range of more than 300 kilometers. It also stipulates that a payload must weigh no more than 500 kilograms, apparently to prevent the development of nuclear warheads.

As North Korea currently has ballistic missiles with a range of over 3,000 kilometers, calls have risen here for the revision of the “outdated” pact with some arguing that the pact has impeded South Korea’s rocket development both for research and military purposes.

Regarding the impression of North Korea’s new leader Kim Jong-un, Obama said he was still uncertain.

“It’s hard to have an impression of Kim Jong-un, in part because the situation in North Korea still appears uncertain. It’s not clear exactly who’s calling the shots, what their long-term objectives are,” he said.

Lee echoed his view, saying that time was needed to predict his leadership, although he expressed some degree of frustration over the rocket launch plan.

Over the weekend, the leaders of the U.N., India, Thailand and New Zealand also echoed South Korea’s view that should the North push ahead with the plan, it would threaten peace and security and violate a U.N. Security Council resolution against the use of ballistic missile technology.

The leaders came here to attend the security summit on Monday and Tuesday in Seoul. It is the U.S.-initiated premier forum on preventing nuclear materials from falling into the hands of non-state actors such as terrorists.

Earlier in the day, Obama paid a rare visit to the Demilitarized Zone, the four-kilometer-wide buffer zone separating the two Koreas, in a display of the U.S. commitment to the security of its key Asian ally.

During the talks between Lee and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the leaders called the launch plan a “threat to peace and stability in the region,” stressing that the North should abide by the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 that bans any use of ballistic missile technology.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key also expressed their deep concerns over the North’s launch plan, calling for it to comply with the U.N. resolution.

On the sidelines of the nuclear summit, which will bring together leaders of more than 50 nations and four global organizations such as the U.N. and EU, leaders are expected to discuss the North Korea nuclear issue, although nonproliferation is not among the main agenda items.

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