WASHINGTON – Amid new tension with North Korea over a planned rocket launch, President Obama plans to visit the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea at the start of an international trip next week, the White House said Tuesday.
Sunday's trip to the most heavily defended border in the world carries obvious Cold War symbolism as Obama tries to foster new nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea. Although U.S. officials regularly go to the DMZ, the presidential visit is likely to be read by the North as a special show of strength to its new, untested leader.
"The DMZ is the front line of democracy in the Korean peninsula," and a symbol of U.S. unity with military ally South Korea, said Daniel Russel, Asia director for the White House National Security Council. "A visit by the president there to see and to thank the U.S. and the South Korean service members makes perfect sense."
Obama aides noted that Obama's visit comes almost exactly two years after the sinking of a South Korean warship, which Seoul and Washington blame on the North.
Obama will visit some of the approximately 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the Korean war six decades ago. The DMZ trip is his first stop on a three-day visit to Seoul, South Korea, for an international summit on keeping nuclear weapons materials out of the hands of terrorists.
The gathering of more than 50 nations is intended to take stock of progress toward Obama's goal of locking down nuclear material around the world by 2014. Despite some progress by known nuclear nations, the goal of complete security is far distant. It is also overshadowed by North Korea's nuclear brinksmanship and fears that Iran could soon build a nuclear weapon.
North Korea has built and tested nuclear devices and is suspected in the spread of weapons of mass destruction to other countries. North Korea is not invited to the security gathering.
"The nuclear security summit is not about North Korea," Russel said. "It's about the commitment of the participating nations to honor their pledges and their commitments." He said North Korea "will be the odd man out."
Obama will hold separate discussions Monday and Tuesday with leaders of Russia, China, South Korea and other nations. It will be his last meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who leaves office next month. Russia and China have blocked a U.S.-backed effort to condemn Syria at the United Nations for its yearlong crackdown on civilians.
The Korean peninsula remains in a technical state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice.
Secretaries of state and defense make regular visits to the DMZ, as do other U.S. officials, but presidential visits carry added symbolism. Obama's will be the first visit since 2002, when George W. Bush visited the DMZ village of Panmunjom a few weeks after he condemned North Korea as part of an "axis of evil." Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan also visited the DMZ while in office.
Obama could have skipped the trip in hopes of resuming new arms control talks with the nuclear North but doing so could have opened him to charges of weakness at home. North Korea's new leader, Kim Jong Un, visited Panmunjom and the DMZ for the first time as leader this month.
Kim ordered troops to be on high alert, state media reported.
Both leaders are invoking the symbolism of the DMZ at a time of political jockeying over North Korea's next move.
North Korea has announced that it will launch a long-range rocket next month. The U.S., Japan, Britain and others have said the planned launch is a threat to diplomatic efforts. They warned it would violate a U.N. ban on nuclear and missile activity because the same rocket technology could be used for long-range missiles.
The U.S. has warned that a deal to resume stalled food aid to the North could be jeopardized if North Korea goes ahead.