National / Politics

North's isolation offers little leverage for denuclearization talks, Obama tells Tokyo audience

AP, Kyodo

Former U.S. President Barack Obama said Sunday that the nuclear weapons negotiations with North Korea are difficult partly because its isolation minimizes the leverage that can be used against it, including trade and travel sanctions.

“North Korea is an example of a country that is so far out of the international norms and so disconnected with the rest of the world,” Obama told a packed hall in Tokyo on Sunday.

He emphasized that the effort to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons remains difficult but that getting countries to work together, including China, South Korea and Japan, will be better than nations going it alone.

Obama said past U.S. efforts to address Iran’s nuclear weapons were more successful because there was more leverage, noting that there was little commerce and travel with North Korea to begin with.

“That makes them less subject to these kinds of negotiations,” he said.

Obama was speaking at an event sponsored by a Japanese nonprofit group. He’s visiting Japan as part of a swing through Asia that includes Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. Obama’s work after leaving office has been focused on nurturing young leaders.

Obama, who was welcomed with a standing ovation, said that the U.S.-Japan alliance remains strong and that the U.S. is committed to defending Japan.

“North Korea is a real threat,” the former U.S. President said.

“Our view has always been that we would prefer to resolve these issues peacefully,” he said, adding that otherwise “the cost in terms of human life would be significant.”

He acknowledged that achieving a nuclear-free world will likely take a long time as long as Russia and the U.S. cannot agree to start reducing their stockpiles.Obama also reflected on his 2016 visit to Hiroshima, one of two cities destroyed by U.S. atomic bombs in the closing days of World War II. His visit was the first by a sitting American president.

Later that day, Obama met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for lunch, sparking memories of their 2014 “sushi summit,” when Obama reportedly used the informal opportunity for bonding to discuss business and trade instead.

Almost all American presidents tend to be relatively popular in Japan, which views the U.S. as its most important ally. But many Japanese particularly appreciate Obama’s efforts on denuclearization and remember with fondness his trip to Hiroshima and his message of working toward a world without nuclear weapons.

“It was an extraordinarily powerful moment for me,” Obama recalled.

Asked after his speech what he most missed about his time in office, Obama said: “I do sometimes miss Air Force One. That’s a nice airplane — especially when you fly across the Pacific.”

But he also revealed that he had to buy his own groceries in the White House.

“You think you get to live for free but no, no! It’s expensive being in the White House, I’ll tell you.”