President Obama greets audience members after speaking at Hankuk University… (Jewel Samad, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Seoul — President Obama on Monday made a direct appeal to the leaders of North Korea and Iran, urging them to "have the courage" to step away from their nuclear weapons programs, rather than follow a path toward greater isolation and economic distress.
"You can continue down the road you are on, but we know where that leads," Obama said in a speech that balanced notes of diplomatic persuasion with hard-edged pressure.
Addressing new leaders in Pyongyang, Obama warned that their current path would lead to "more broken dreams, more isolation and ever more distance between the people of North Korea and the dignity and opportunity they deserve."
To Tehran, he said that "time is short" for diplomacy to defuse a standoff over its nuclear program.
Obama made the remarks on the second day of a visit to Seoul, where he is attending a nuclear terrorism summit. Speaking before a group of students at Hankuk University, Obama touted his initiative to lock down loose nuclear material, as well as his broader goals of blocking the spread of nuclear weapons.
The trip started in ways that reprised similar journeys by his last two predecessors, reflecting the Korean peninsula's status as one of the last vestiges of what used to be a worldwide divide.
Like Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama traveled to the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea, donning binoculars at an outpost only yards from the armistice line. The president gazed out over the stark, wooded mountains of North Korea, where the transition to a new regime has presented him with a new installment of a recurring puzzle.
All three presidents have tried to block, slow or roll back North Korea's nuclear weapons program. North Korea's arsenal, though small and crude by international standards, nonetheless poses a threat because of the regime's history of sharing nuclear technology with others and of belligerence toward its southern neighbor, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops have been stationed for more than 60 years.
Administration officials had been cautiously optimistic just a few weeks ago about a deal with the North Koreans to provide food aid in return for an end to some parts of the nuclear program. But even before Obama arrived in Seoul, that agreement was in tatters, as North Korea appeared to be charging ahead with plans to launch a rocket despite a chorus of objections.
North Korea says it is launching a satellite to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the regime and grandfather of the country's new leader, Kim Jong Un, who took power after his father's death in December. The United States says the launch would violate the deal, Japan has threatened to shoot down the rocket, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said the launch could result in further United Nations sanctions.
In his first remarks about the launch, at a meeting with the South Korean president, Obama seemed to cast North Korea as a willful child acting out for attention.
"Bad behavior will not be rewarded. There's been a pattern for decades in which North Korea thought that if they acted provocatively, they would be bribed into ceasing and desisting," Obama said at a news conference with Lee several hours after the visit to the DMZ.
"We're going to break that habit," he said.
Obama floated a possible cause for the rapid shift in North Korea's position — from making an agreement to apparently scuttling it within weeks — suggesting that the young North Korean leader might not yet have consolidated power and that the new regime may be divided.
"The situation in North Korea is still very unsettled. It's not clear exactly who is calling the shots and what their long-term objectives are," Obama told reporters.
The president said he would attempt to enlist help from China, one of North Korea's few allies, during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Explaining his message for Hu, Obama seemed to express frustration with past failures of this approach, saying the Chinese had seemed to be "turning a blind eye" and "trying to paper over" North Korea's provocations.
"That's obviously not working," Obama said.
Obama also met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the continued violence in Syria. The leaders declared themselves in agreement on the need for Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and said they would use a meeting at the beginning of April to talk about ways to deliver nonlethal assistance to Assad's opposition.
Deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, who described the meeting to reporters, said the aid would include communications tools and medicine.