By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
SEOUL, June 15 -- As state media in North Korea continued to warn of possible nuclear war, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak flew to Washington for talks on Tuesday with President Obama, from whom Lee is expected to seek a written promise of continued U.S. nuclear protection.
The United States has maintained a nuclear umbrella over South Korea since the Korean War, and it periodically reaffirms that protection, although not at the level of a White House statement.
North Korea tested its second nuclear bomb last month, triggering worldwide condemnation and cranking up anxiety in Seoul. When the U.N. Security Council imposed new sanctions on the North for that test, the government of Kim Jong Il quickly responded in the fist-shaking manner that has characterized its behavior this year.
It declared Saturday that it would never give up nuclear weapons and would start making more of them, using plutonium and enriched uranium. Until Saturday, North Korea had denied that it even had a program for making weapons with enriched uranium.
Shortly after the North detonated its first nuclear device in 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld assured his South Korean counterpart of the continuation of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But South Korea now wants the promise in writing from the White House, according to South Korean published reports citing unnamed officials in Lee's office. A North Korean newspaper taunted Lee on Monday for "begging" for American protection. The Rodong Sinmun, the main newspaper of the North Korean Workers' Party, also accused Lee's government of an "atrocious scheme to wage a second Korean war with nuclear weapons on the back of its U.S. boss."
U.S. nuclear weapons were pulled out of South Korea in 1991. But the nuclear umbrella is maintained by U.S. Navy submarines in the Pacific that are armed with ballistic missiles and by nuclear weapons based in the United States.
The Obama administration has said repeatedly that it wants to try to resume negotiations with North Korea, but it has also said that it would help protect South Korea in case of aggression from Pyongyang. There are 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.
Lee and Obama, in what will be their second meeting, will also discuss a free-trade agreement between their two countries. It was signed in 2007 but has not been ratified by the Senate, primarily because of concerns about U.S. imports of South Korean cars and strict limits in South Korea on imports of U.S. beef.