SEOUL – North Korea will gain nothing by making threats, U.S. President Barack Obama said Friday, warning it of sanctions with “more bite” if it goes ahead with a fourth nuclear test.
Speaking in South Korea as satellite images revealed the North could be preparing for an underground explosion, Obama stressed that Washington and Seoul stand “shoulder to shoulder” in their refusal to accept a nuclear North Korea.
Even China, the North’s only major ally, is becoming alienated by its provocative behavior, he said on the second leg of his Asian tour.
“Threats will get North Korea nothing, other than greater isolation,” Obama said at a joint press conference with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye.
“China is beginning to recognize that North Korea is not just a nuisance but a significant problem for their own security,” he added.
Underlining its status as global outlaw, Pyongyang said late Friday that it is holding a U.S. citizen for “rash behavior” while passing through immigration.
In a brief despatch, the official news agency KCNA said the American, whom it identified as Miller Matthew Todd, 24, was taken into custody on April 10.
The two-week delay in announcing the incident suggests it was timed to coincide with Obama’s visit.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington was aware of the reports of the arrest of a U.S. citizen, but she had no additional information.
“We have been in touch with the embassy of Sweden about these reports,” she told journalists, adding that “there’s no greater priority to us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens.”
Washington has no diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, and the Swedish Embassy there usually acts on its behalf in cases involving U.S. citizens.
North Korea watchers have puzzled over whether the preparations they are seeing via satellite at the Punggye-ri test site are real, or bravado aimed at stealing the limelight.
But the latest images suggest increased movement of vehicles and materials near what are believed to be the entrances to two completed test tunnels, the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said on its closely followed 38 North website.
Also visible were probable command and control vehicles intended to provide secure communications between the test site and other facilities.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
The 38 North analysis noted that preparations for the test in February last year had peaked two or three days before detonation.
Asked how the international community might react to a detonation, Obama said it will be necessary to look at “additional ways” to apply pressure, including “further sanctions that have even more bite.”
Obama’s tough talking on what he called “the most isolated country in the world” stood in marked contrast to the warm words of sympathy he had for his hosts, still racked with grief after a ferry full of schoolchildren capsized recently, leaving 300 people dead or missing.
“I’m very mindful that my visit comes at a time of mourning for the people of this nation,” he said ahead of talks with Park at the presidential Blue House.
“I just want to express, on the part of the American people, condolences for the incredible loss.”
While a U.S. presidential visit would normally be expected to command the lion’s share of attention in South Korea, the country remains preoccupied with the misery wrought by the sinking of the ferry.
Television coverage of Obama’s activities was limited, with the focus still on events in Jindo, where divers were racing against time to recover the 119 bodies still believed trapped in the sunken vessel.
Bad weather was expected to close in Saturday, hampering the effort.
Obama’s four-nation tour of Asia started in Japan, where he offered Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assurances that the U.S. is treaty-bound to act if China moves militarily against Japanese-controlled islands at the center of a bitter territorial dispute.
And in Seoul on Friday, he broached another regional fault line when he said Japan’s wartime system of sex slavery “was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights.”
“Those women were violated in ways that even in the midst of war were shocking,” he said. “They deserve to be heard, they deserve to be respected. And there should be an accurate and clear account of what happened.”
South Korea and other nations accuse Japan of failing sufficiently to atone for the forced recruitment of so-called “comfort women” to service its troops before and during World War II.
The issue remains a major irritant in relations between Tokyo and Seoul, and a frustration to Washington which wants its two major allies in the region to act together against North Korea and forge a united front against a rising China.
“I think (Japanese) Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe recognizes this and certainly the Japanese people recognize that the past is something that has to be recognized honestly and fairly,” Obama said.
After a formal dinner with Park later in the day, Obama on Saturday is to visit some of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. He will later head to Malaysia and the Philippines.