In a show of unity, President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak have issued a stern warning to North Korea, vowing to stop the reclusive nation from using nuclear brinkmanship to squeeze concessions from a frightened world.
Lee, a conservative former businessman whom Pyongyang regularly pillories as a "traitor," told reporters Tuesday in the White House Rose Garden that the world will not respond to North Korea's recent nuclear and missile tests and its threats of nuclear war by offering financial incentives.
"They will not be able to gain compensation by provoking a crisis," Lee said. "This has been a pattern in the past, but it will no longer be."
Lee responded to a question about a possible North Korean attack by saying his country's strong alliance with the United States will force the North to "think twice about taking any measures that they will regret."
"North Korea may wish to do so, but of course they will not be able to," Lee added.
Lee said he and Obama agreed that "under no circumstance are we going to allow North Korea to possess nuclear weapons." North Korea already has tested two underground nuclear devices and is believed by U.S. intelligence to possess enough material to make several nuclear bombs.
Obama also talked tough, promising to break the cycle of allowing Pyongyang to create crises and then reap rewards when it backs down.
Despite the display of unity on nuclear matters, the leaders seemed far apart on an ambitious free trade agreement that is currently stalled over U.S. lawmakers' worries that it could hurt an already struggling American auto industry.
The main focus of the presidents' meeting, however, was North Korean rhetoric that has become increasingly heated in the wake of a United Nations rebuke of the North's second nuclear test on May 25.
North Korea is furious over U.N. sanctions that toughen an arms embargo and authorize ship searches in an attempt to thwart the North's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The United Nations, however, did not authorize military force to compel the measures.
Obama said the leaders agreed that the new U.N. resolution must be fully enforced, something the North has said it would consider an act of war.
The North has responded to the U.N. sanctions by promising to weaponize all its plutonium and step up its nuclear bomb-making by enriching uranium. Both plutonium and uranium can be used to make atomic bombs.
On Wednesday, the government-run Minju Joson newspaper published a commentary saying, "If the U.S. and its followers infringe upon our republic's sovereignty even a bit, our military and people will launch a one hundred- or one thousand-fold retaliation with merciless military strikes."
U.S. officials have said the North Koreans also appear to be making preparations for a third nuclear test.
Lee hinted at a possible new direction in long-running, often deadlocked six-nation North Korean nuclear disarmament talks. He said he and Obama agreed to push new policies that will "effectively persuade North Korea to irrevocably dismantle all their nuclear weapons programs."
He did not elaborate, and the White House had no comment on the matter.
North Korea has bargained with other countries for more than a decade about giving up its nuclear program, gaining energy and economic concessions and then backing away from its commitments.
Although Obama called North Korea's nuclear ambitions a grave threat to the world, he also spoke of another path available to the North: peaceful talks that lead Kim Jong Il's government to abandon all nuclear programs and join the international community. "Prestige and security and prosperity are not going to come through the path of threatening neighbors and engaging in violations of international law," Obama said.
After his meeting with Obama, Lee met with senior lawmakers at the Capitol. As the economy continues to struggle, Democrats have been skeptical of ratifying ambitious trade deals negotiated by former President George W. Bush, including a stalled deal between the U.S. and South Korea to slash tariffs on goods and services.
At a Tuesday dinner sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Lee urged representatives of top American companies to push for quick ratification of the agreement to dramatically boost trade and strengthen the countries' alliance.
Obama suggested that work still had to be done on the deal, which was signed in 2007 after painstaking negotiations but has since faced complications over disputes over autos and U.S. beef imports to Korea. Obama said earlier Tuesday that he wanted to make sure "questions about whether there's sufficient reciprocity with respect to cars" are settled before the free trade agreement is sent to Congress for ratification.
"What I've done is to affirm to President Lee that we want to work constructively with the Republic of Korea in a systematic way to clear some of these barriers that are preventing free trade from occurring between our two countries," Obama said.
The agreement has been promoted as a potential $10 billion boon to the U.S. economy. Failure, supporters say, would threaten U.S. standing in an important region.
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