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Obama tests his sway over North Korea

President Obama has urged North Korea to abandon a rocket launch planned for next month.

President Obama has urged North Korea to abandon a rocket launch planned for next month, warning the regime that it faced further isolation and the possible end to an aid deal if it engaged in “threats or provocations”.

Obama said the expected launch of a long-range rocket to coincide with the centenary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15, would deepen the country’s isolation in the international community.

“Bad behavior will not be rewarded,” Obama said in Seoul on the eve of an international summit on nuclear security. “There had been a pattern, I think, for decades in which North Korea thought if they had acted provocatively, then somehow they would be bribed into ceasing and desisting acting provocatively.”

The US and its allies say the rocket launch would be a violation of a UN ban on nuclear and missile activity because the technology involved could be used in long-range missiles, including those carrying nuclear warheads. The launch could also derail a deal in which the North would halt missile tests and its uranium enrichment program in return for US food aid.

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Earlier on Sunday, Obama stood at “freedom’s frontier” and peered into the bleak North Korean countryside on Sunday, as world leaders arrived in Seoul to discuss the growing threat from the regime’s nuclear weapons program.

Dressed in a black bomber jacket, Obama told US troops at Camp Bonifas, located close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two countries, that they stood between freedom and prosperity in South Korea and oppression in the North.

“I could not be prouder of what you do,” he said. “You guys are at freedom’s frontier. The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer, could not be starker, both in terms of freedom and in terms of prosperity.

“When you think about the transformation that has taken place in South Korea during my lifetime, it is directly attributable to this long line of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guardsmen who were willing to create the space and the opportunity for freedom and prosperity.”

His visit to the DMZ, a two-and-a-half-mile-wide stretch of land that has separated the two countries since the end of the Korean War in 1953, came as North Koreans ended their official 100-day mourning period for their late leader, Kim Jong Il.

State media said tens of thousands of people had gathered in Pyongyang to listen to speeches from senior figures in the regime. “We have to unite, unite and unite again behind dear comrade Kim Jong Un,” the premier, Choe Yong Rim, was quoted as saying by Associated Press.

Over the past three months, North Korea has sought to strengthen the inexperienced Jong Un’s position; those efforts will culminate in a rocket launch next month to mark the centenary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

The country’s supreme people’s assembly and ruling Workers’ party are expected to give Jong Un — Kim Jong Il’s youngest son — grander titles designed to consolidate his grip on power: chairman of the defense commission and secretary general of the party.

Obama, the Chinese president Hu Jintao and other leaders will begin two days of talks on Monday aimed at strengthening defenses against nuclear terrorism. While Iran and North Korea are not on the official agenda, they are expected to dominate discussions on the sidelines.

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Obama called on China, North Korea’s main ally, to do more to persuade the regime in Pyongyang to return to six-party nuclear talks, stalled since it walked out in 2009 and conducted its second nuclear weapons test.

“What I’ve said to [China] consistently is rewarding bad behavior, turning a blind eye to deliberate provocations, trying to paper over these not just provocative words but extraordinarily provocative acts that violate international norms, that that’s not obviously working,” Obama said.

Australia and the Philippines have voiced concern about the rocket’s trajectory, while Japan has threatened to shoot it down if it threatens its territory.  So far China has only has urged the North to “stay calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalation”.

North Korea’s rocket launch, planned for next month, could jeopardize a recent deal that would give it access to US food aid in return for stopping missile tests and ending its uranium enrichment program.

Australia and the Philippines have voiced concern about the rocket’s trajectory, while Japan has threatened to shoot it down if it threatens its territory. Significantly, China has urged its ally and aid beneficiary to “stay calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalation.”

North Korea insists that it has the right to launch what it describes as an observation satellite and accused the international community of “double standards.”

“If there are any sinister attempts to deprive the [North] of its independent and legitimate right and impose unreasonable double standards, this will inevitably compel us to take countermeasures,” the North’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The regime believes that a successful launch will boost attempts to portray North Korea as a “strong and prosperous nation” to coincide with Kim Il Sung’s centenary on April 15.

Obama’s visit is being seen as an 11th-hour attempt to put pressure on the North to abandon the launch and return to six-party nuclear talks.

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But reports on Sunday, citing information from the US and South Korean military, said the long-range rocket had been moved to a site in North Korea’s northwest in preparation for the launch, which could come any time between April 12-16. The foreign ministry in Pyongyang said preparations to out an observation satellite into orbit had entered a “full fledged stage of action.”

The US, Japan and other countries in the region say the launch would violate a UN ban on nuclear and missile activity because the same technology could be developed to a deliver nuclear warhead on a long-range missile.

Shin Jong Dae, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, believes the planned launch was a sign the regime would continue its longstanding diplomatic tactic of provocation and concession-making.

“On around April 15, Kim Jong Un will try to make a breakthrough in its relations with the US and the international community,” he told GlobalPost. “[Kim Jong Un] also wants to improve the standard of living of the North Korean people, and to do that [he] needs food, energy and other assistance from the outside world. In that context, North Korea will probably return to the six-party talks.”

The US, however, says nothing North Korea has done in recent years indicates that it is sincere about negotiating an end to its nuclear weapons program.

In 2010 it sank the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors, and bombed Yeonpyeong island, located just south of the countries maritime border in the Yellow Sea. Despite reports that the North will allow international nuclear inspectors in for the first time in three years, there are no signs that it is ready to bow to pressure to cancel the missile launch.

Some have suggested that the North is preparing for a third nuclear weapons test, following similar tests in 2006 and 2009.

“If North Korea conducts a third nuclear test, it will not so much be to demonstrate its power to its people as a way of creating stability for the regime,” said professor Shin. “More important than that, it would be sending a message to the international community, and in particular to the United States, using pressure to make clear that it wants dialogue with the US. History shows that when North Korea faces challenges, it opts for military adventurism in the hope of making a breakthrough and achieving its goals.”

Kim Hyun Wook, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, says Washington should be most concerned about the North’s uranium enrichment program, which would give it another means of building nuclear weapons in addition to its plutonium-based program and could be used to arm other states.

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“[Uranium] is very easy to make, and small enough to hide and move around, which can subsequently be a much bigger threat to the United States,” he said.

Obama’s visit to the DMZ, under heavy security, was a reminder that North and South Korea are technically still at war. The South is home to 28,500 US troops, a commitment Washington says will remain as long as Pyongyang represents a threat. North Korea, meanwhile, has committed 70 percent of its ground forces within 55 miles of the DMZ, including about 250 long-range artillery systems capable of striking Seoul, according to US military forces.

If it goes ahead, next month’s rocket launch will be the first real act of defiance from the North’s new leadership under Kim Jong Un. At the very least it could set back attempts to coax the North to return to multiparty nuclear talks, and mark an early end to what some hoped would be a period of engagement with the Obama administration.

But if the North Korean nuclear program is ever going to be resolved, it will have to be through dialogue, not force, said professor Kim. “With all these changes in the Northeast Asian security environment, I think it would be almost impossible for the United States to use military tools to deal with North Korea,” he said.