White House aides said the president will use the occasion to thank the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the South for their service. But Obama’s remarks are expected to kick off an intensive administration lobbying effort to ramp up international pressure on the North to scuttle plans to launch a long-range rocket in mid-April.
Administration officials have condemned the plan as a “direct violation” of Pyongyang’s recent promise to halt weapons tests in exchange for food. In a series of bilateral meetings, Obama will press the leaders of China, South Korea and Russia to “bring all the instruments of power to bear to influence the decision-making in North Korea,” said Danny Russel, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council.
Obama will consult with his counterparts about “what we can do to help ensure that North Korea doesn’t make the wrong choice . . . with regard to a long-range missile launch, but more broadly, that it comes into compliance with its international obligations,” Russel added.
The standoff presents an awkward backdrop for next week’s meetings, a follow-up to the inaugural nuclear security summit that Obama organized in Washington in 2010 after promising during his campaign to prioritize the need to secure loose nuclear materials and prevent terror groups from obtaining them. Although North Korea is not officially on the summit agenda, its weapons programs will be the focus on the sidelines of the formal working group sessions.
Pyongyang’s belligerence also raises pressure on Obama in an election year to cope with the North Korea threat — a threat that U.S. diplomats believed they were on the verge of quieting — at a time when questions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program have blossomed into a major campaign issue.
Republicans have hammered Obama for not taking a harder line against Iran, while rising gas prices driven in part by uncertainty have hurt the president’s approval ratings.
Analysts say Obama’s foreign policy headache in the Far East is likely to intensify because there is little chance that Pyongyang will abandon its rocket launch, which the authoritarian nation has described as a way to send a satellite into orbit. The event coincides with the 100th anniversary of the birth of the North’s first communist leader, Kim Il Sung, whose 20-something grandson, Kim Jong Eun, assumed power in late December.
Administration officials vow privately that a food aid deal hammered out with Pyongyang on Feb. 29 will be a non-starter if the North follows through. This week, the Pentagon abruptly suspended efforts to recover the remains of U.S. troops in North Korea, another sign of the deteriorating relationship.