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Obama Assures South Korea of Protection From Increasingly Hostile North

President Obama met with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak at the White House to discuss the North Korean nuclear threat and the implementation of new U.N. sanctions. Video by AP, Edited by Francine Uenuma/The Washington Post

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009

As new sanctions against North Korea take effect, President Obama said yesterday that he does not believe it is inevitable that the isolated communist nation "will or should be" designated a nuclear power.

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Obama spoke during a Rose Garden news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who traveled to Washington seeking explicit assurance that the Obama administration will continue the long-standing U.S. policy of protecting his country from North Korean attack.

Lee's request was granted in a written "joint vision" of the U.S.-South Korea relationship, issued yesterday.

The two leaders' meeting came against a backdrop of increasingly belligerent actions and rhetoric from North Korea. The reclusive government recently detonated a nuclear device and pledged never to abandon its weapons program, steps that prompted the U.N. Security Council to approve a new program of sanctions last week.

Those include financial restrictions against North Korea's government and leaders, a ban on its lucrative arms exports, and permission for countries to search North Korean ships on the high seas.

The government of Kim Jong Il, North Korea's reportedly ailing leader, has said it would consider such searches to be acts of war. But after meeting with Obama at the White House, Lee said, "This firm alliance that we have between the United States and Korea is going to prevent anything from happening."

"Of course, North Korea . . . may wish to do so, but of course they will not be able to do so," Lee said, referring to North Korean attacks.

The Obama administration has staked out a pragmatic approach to foreign policy in its first months in office, but North Korea has proved to be an issue without an obvious course of action or resolution.

Administration officials, including veterans of the Clinton administration, emphasize that North Korea's leadership customarily welcomes a new U.S. president with ritual hazing, most recently by the nuclear test, its second. In recent months, Pyongyang has also tested short- and long-range missiles in defiance of international sanctions and criticism.

Earlier this week, North Korea publicly said for the first time that it possessed nuclear weapons and intended to make more of them, using its own plutonium and enriched uranium to do so.

In addition, the government sentenced two American journalists -- Laura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36 -- to 12 years of hard labor last week after they were detained in March for allegedly crossing illegally into the country from China.

Meanwhile, North Korea's authoritarian government is undergoing an opaque and politically volatile succession process to replace Kim, who reportedly suffered a stroke last year. The potential for change inside the hermetic government has made it even more difficult to read than usual.

Obama has argued that the new U.N. sanctions hold more promise than those the Security Council has previously enacted to curb North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The president noted yesterday that Russia and China, two veto-wielding Security Council members who have defended North Korea in the past, voted for these sanctions, and he cited that support in reaffirming that "we will pursue denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula vigorously."

The Security Council's decision to allow the searching of North Korean ships reflects fear that Kim's government is exporting nuclear technology or is seeking to do so. Obama has called nuclear proliferation a grave threat to world security, and his meeting in Moscow next month with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will focus on new arms-reduction measures.

He said yesterday that North Korea "has a track record of proliferation that makes it unacceptable for them to be accepted as a nuclear power." In September 2007, Israel bombed a building in northern Syria that intelligence officials have described as a nuclear reactor site being built with the help of North Korean scientists and engineers.

After Lee took office in February 2008, he adopted a far harder line toward the North than his predecessor. He broke with a policy of providing food and fertilizer unconditionally to the North, which suffers from widespread famine. Instead, Lee made extensive economic assistance to the North conditional, in exchange for Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear program. Trade between the countries has sunk sharply as a result of the policy change.

"There is a path for North Korea to take in which they are joining the world community, becoming integrated in the world economy, able to feed their own people," Obama said. "But in order to take that path, North Korea has to make a decision and understand that prestige and security and prosperity are not going to come through the path of threatening neighbors and engaging in violations of international law."

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