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Presidents Obama, Lee Face ‘Bad or Worse Options’ Over N. Korea Negotiations

October 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The White House rolled out all the flourishes of a state visit for South Korean President Lee to celebrate the new trade agreement, passed by Congress on Wednesday, and to discuss a strategy to denuclearize North Korea. Margret Warner reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Next, talking trade and nuclear weapons, as South Korea’s president comes to Washington.

Margaret Warner has the story.

MARGARET WARNER: The White House rolled out all the flourishes of a state visit for President Lee, a tribute to how important an ally it sees South Korea in an ever-more vital part of the world. The ceremony, held outdoors despite the drizzle, also showed an increasingly close personal relationship between President Obama and his counterpart.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: President Lee, First Lady Kim, members of the Korean delegation — on behalf of Michelle and myself, on behalf of the American people, welcome to the United States.

(APPLAUSE)

MARGARET WARNER: The two presidents had two major agenda items, first, touting a long-stalled free trade agreement passed by Congress last night, which the administration says will generate $11 billion in new exports for U.S. companies and farmers. The Korean Parliament has yet to approve it.

The accord, first signed in 2007, had to be renegotiated twice over U.S. misgivings on access to Korean markets for U.S. beef and cars. After winning concessions to address auto union and other Democratic concerns, President Obama last month urged Congress to pass it.

BARACK OBAMA: If Americans can buy Kias and Hyundais, I want to see folks in South Korea driving Fords and Chevys and Chryslers.

MARGARET WARNER: With Republicans agreeing to a benefits program for workers who lose jobs to foreign competition, both houses approved the revised deal on the eve of President Lee’s arrival at the White House.

In a joint press conference today, the two men insisted the accord will be good for both countries.

BARACK OBAMA: For our farmers and ranchers here in the United States, it will increase exports of agricultural products. From aerospace to electronics, it will increase American manufacturing exports, including those produced by our small businesses.

LEE MYUNG-BAK, South Korean president (through translator): It is a win-win agreement that will benefit both of our countries in countless ways.

MARGARET WARNER: But, behind closed doors, the two presidents were intently focused on something entirely different, the persistent, seemingly intractable problem of what to do about Seoul’s belligerent neighbor to the north, North Korea.

Tensions dating from the Korean War have grown more ominous in recent years, as North Korea expands its nuclear weapon and missile arsenal. Hostilities flared last year in March when the North torpedoed and sank the South’s naval vessel Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. And four people died on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in November when the two changed artillery fire over a disputed maritime border.

Also adding to the volatility, North Korea’s preparation for a leadership change from the ailing dictator Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong-un. But most worrying to the U.S. and the region is North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles that can carry them long distances.

In January, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on a trip to Asia, warned that the North was within five years of being able to strike the U.S.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: Today, it is North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the proliferation of nuclear know-how and ballistic missile equipment that have focused our attention, developments that threaten not only the peninsula, but the Pacific Rim and international stability as well.

MARGARET WARNER: For the past few years, the North has alternated between engaging in multination talks and silence, all the while advancing its nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Pyongyang cut off six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan more than two years ago in April of 2009.

We asked Stanford University visiting scholar Robert Carlin, who spent decades at the State Department and the CIA, where things stand now.

ROBERT CARLIN, Stanford University: Nowhere, seriously. We have — we have probably lost a lot of ground. And for the last 10 years, there’s been a real void. And nothing, absolutely nothing has been accomplished. They had two nuclear tests. They perfected their uranium enrichment and they worked on their missile delivery program. And that’s where we are today.

MARGARET WARNER: That leaves Presidents Obama and Lee in a quandary. Do they make moves in North Korea’s direction to get talks restarted, or do they stick to their preconditions, which the North has so far refused to meet?

VICTOR CHA, Center for Strategic and International Studies: With North Korea, you never have a good option.

MARGARET WARNER: Victor Cha, former top official at the National Security Council, is Korean chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He thinks the Obama administration is reluctantly edging toward meeting the North’s push for direct talks with the U.S. over the nuclear issue and over normalizing diplomat regulations.

VICTOR CHA: You only have bad options or worse options. The worse option is to leave them alone and let their nuclear and missile program go completely unabated for four years of Obama. That’s a very bad situation.

So you’re left with a position where they have to negotiate. They have to hold their nose and negotiate, in hopes of being able to contain a crisis of some sort. And that’s where they are today.

MARGARET WARNER: U.S. and North Korean officials held one direct meeting in New York in July, ostensibly to discuss how to get back to the six-nation talks.

VICTOR CHA: What we’re seeing now is an attempt to create a thaw in the relationship.

MARGARET WARNER: But even small moves like that make South Korea nervous. President Lee has taken a tough line with the North, refusing engagement or further aid, despite the North’s food shortages, until certain preconditions are met. So far, the U.S. has joined in insisting on those conditions.

VICTOR CHA: They need to promise not to do nuclear missile tests. They have to promise not to attack South Korea again. They have to freeze the plutonium program at Yongbyon, and then they have to allow in inspectors to their uranium program also at Yongbyon. The North Koreans have not given any public sense that they are willing to meet any of those pre-steps.

MARGARET WARNER: Carlin thinks the preconditions are self-defeating.

ROBERT CARLIN: To think that we’re going to get the North Koreans to agree to our goals ahead of time, before the negotiations, is to imagine that they are somehow a vanquished foe. And they’re not. And they don’t — they certainly don’t think of themselves that way. And so, if we’re not careful, the North Koreans will say, then you’re not serious.

MARGARET WARNER: Carlin also says Washington and Seoul should be willing to broaden their focus beyond denuclearization.

ROBERT CARLIN: If we only deal with the nuclear issue in and of itself, chances are very slim that we’re going to get this airplane off the ground.

MARGARET WARNER: Publicly, the two presidents today showed no distance between them on how to handle the North.

BARACK OBAMA: If the North abandons its quest for nuclear weapons and moves toward denuclearization, it will enjoy greater security and opportunity for its people. That’s the choice that North Korea faces.

LEE MYUNG-BAK (through translator): When it comes to cooperation between our two governments, we speak with one voice, and we will continue to speak with one voice.

MARGARET WARNER: But Cha says the differences over how to proceed with the North are subtle, but very real.

VICTOR CHA: The South would just like the pace of this to be much slower and much more deliberate, while I think the Obama administration feels like they have a moment where they need to try this, particularly before they get into an election year.

MARGARET WARNER: As Presidents Obama and Lee wrestled with all this, there was one sign tensions may be easing ever so slightly back on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korea said Tuesday it will allow 120 firms to restart construction on a joint industrial park inside North Korea’s border. The work was halted after last year’s hostilities. Today, President Lee journeyed to the capital to thank Congress for passing the trade deal, and, tomorrow, he and President Obama will make a joint visit to an auto plant in Detroit.