WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and his South Korean counterpart, Park Geun Hye, presented a unified front Tuesday against North Korea’s aggressive recent actions, calling on the isolated nation to give up its nuclear program as promised in return for international aid and acceptance.
Speaking at a joint news conference after morning meetings with Park at the White House, Obama said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s belligerent attempts to divide the United States and South Korea have failed. He also reasserted Washington’s commitment to defend Seoul and other allies in the region from the North’s aggression.
“Today is further evidence that North Korea has failed again,” Obama said. “The days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions, those days are over.”
The visit is Park’s first overseas trip as president and comes as the United States and South Korea mark the 60th anniversary of their mutual defense treaty. Park, whose father was assassinated when he held the office, became the country’s first female president in February.
Obama had a strong working relationship with her predecessor, Lee Myung Bak, with whom he reached a free-trade agreement after difficult negotiations.
Obama and Park had spoken by phone amid the North Korean threats, but this visit marked their first face-to-face encounter. Park was to address a joint meeting of Congress later Wednesday, an opportunity Obama said was reserved for only “our closest friends.”
The two leaders said they discussed a range of common interests, including the global economy, energy policy, the Syrian civil war and U.S. policy on Afghanistan. But, as expected, North Korea emerged as the most pressing mutual concern, and Obama and Park made clear that Kim would not secure new assistance or support through threats.
“North Korea will not be able to survive if it only clings to its development of nuclear weapons at the expense of its people’s happiness,” Park said.
Park has offered aid in cooperation with other nations if Pyongyang lives up to its previous international agreements. In an interview following her meeting with Obama, she said she had not abandoned the trust-building initiative she had promised with the North as part of her presidential campaign.
While South Korea remains willing to work with the United States and the international community to aid the North’s development, Park said, her idea of a “new kind of Korean peninsula” is one “where we would never tolerate North Korean nuclear weapons, provocations would carry consequences and threats would not pay.”
Trust, she said, “is about keeping the window open at all times” for dialogue. Referring to Kim, she added: “Of course I would meet with him if the need arose. But what use would it be at this exact moment?”
Park deflected a question about Seoul’s interest in having its own nuclear deterrent, saying there was “no way that we can live with North Korean nuclear weapons hanging over our head” and praising bilateral security cooperation with the U.S.
In the interview, Park spoke at length about a regional organization she has proposed to increase communication and a sense of community among the nations of Northeast Asia. She said such an entity, which she described as finding “synergy” with Obama’s proposed rebalancing of U.S. policy toward the Asia-Pacific region, could be helpful in persuading China to take a more robust stand in reining in North Korea.
“We can’t expect China to do everything . . . but there is room for more,” she said. “North Korea is very heavily dependent on China (and) they could perhaps strengthen their persuasion.”
But Park made clear that the proposed organization could be equally important in addressing what she termed “historical” differences among the region’s countries, specifically South Korea’s long memory of Japanese atrocities committed during its long colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Those unhealed wounds were reopened early this year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe defended visits of his Cabinet ministers and senior defense officials, as well as other prominent Diet lawmakers, to a shrine that Seoul considers a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression. Yasukuni Shrine honors Japanese war dead, including Class-A war criminals.
While Japan and South Korea share the same political and economic values, Park said, “The Japanese have been opening past wounds and have been letting them fester . . . it arrests our ability to build on momentum” in areas of cooperation.
Park described the coexistence of deepening economic interdependence with historical geopolitical tensions as the “Asia paradox,” and said the United States could play a significant role in helping to resolve such problems in the region.