SEOUL — President Obama pressed Chinese President Hu Jintao to dissuade North Korea from its planned long-range missile launch next month, though Mr. Obama’s plea was overshadowed by a few overheard half-whispers that caused a political furor back home over his foreign-policy honesty.
“We both have an interest in making sure that international norms surrounding nonproliferation and preventing destabilizing nuclear weapons is very important,” Mr. Obama told the Chinese leader in front of reporters before their meeting began.
But remarks Mr. Obama made when he thought reporters weren’t listening produced the opposite image from what the White House sought for a trip that focused on nuclear proliferation Monday and had him pose Sunday with soldiers at the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas.
Mr. Obama was overheard putting off a difficult national security question by asking outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for breathing room until after Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign to negotiate on missile defense.
“On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Medvedev at the end of their 90-minute meeting, apparently referring to Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin as “him.”
Mr. Medvedev replied in English, “Yeah, I understand. I understand your message about space. Space for you.”
“This is my last election,” Mr. Obama said. “After my election, I have more flexibility.”
The Russian leader responded, “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”
The two men are in Seoul for a nuclear security summit involving the leaders of more than 50 nations. Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev were huddling in their respective chairs when the conversation took place.
The exchange was picked up by microphone of a Russian reporter as journalists were allowed into the meeting room for remarks by the two leaders. It was first reported by ABC News, which said it verified the conversation.
A Washington Times reporter heard a portion of the tape that begins with Mr. Obama saying, “This is my last election.”
GOP piles on
The nation’s top Republicans immediately began accusing the president of surreptitiously intending to give the store away to the Kremlin when he doesn’t have to worry about the political fallout in the U.S.
“When the president returns from S. Korea, we look forward to hearing what he meant by having ‘more flexibility’ on missile defense,” House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said via his Twitter account.
“Let this exchange be a warning to voters: President Obama will have ‘more flexibility’ to weaken us if he’s re-elected in November,” former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin wrote on her Facebook page.
Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney also criticized the Medvedev exchange, calling it “alarming” and “troubling.” He said the president already had agreed to give up too many U.S. nuclear weapons and scotched a missile-defense system in Poland in unsuccessful efforts to appease Moscow.
“Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage, and for this president to be looking for greater flexibility, where he doesn’t have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia, is very, very troubling, very alarming. This is a president who was telling us one thing and doing something else and is planning on doing something even more frightening,” Mr. Romney said in an interview on CNN.
Primary rival Newt Gingrich also questioned Mr. Obama’s motives, telling CNN that “I’m curious, how many other countries has the president promised that he’d have a lot more flexibility the morning he doesn’t have to answer to the American people?”
The Romney campaign website immediately put up a theme page, suggesting a pattern of Mr. Obama saying he would do things on matters such as environmental regulation and spending in a politically unaccountable second term that he couldn’t try now.
White House rebuttal
The Obama campaign quickly put out a statement calling Mr. Romney a flip-flopper. “Gov. Romney has been all over the map on the key foreign policy challenges,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said, and accused the former Massachusetts governor of engaging in “empty rhetoric.”
Within an hour of the first reporting of the exchange, however, Mr. Rhodes issued a statement via email that the U.S. “is committed to implementing our missile defense system, which we’ve repeatedly said is not aimed at Russia.”
“However, given the longstanding difference between the U.S. and Russia on this issue, it will take time and technical work before we can try to reach an agreement,” Mr. Rhodes said.
“Since 2012 is an election year in both countries, with an election and leadership transition in Russia and an election in the United States, it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough.
“Therefore, President Obama and President Medvedev agreed that it was best to instruct our technical experts to do the work of better understanding our respective positions, providing space for continued discussions on missile defense cooperation going forward,” Mr. Rhodes said.
Mr. Medvedev told reporters that he believes missile defense talks between the two countries “could be more active.”
“I believe we still have time; time hasn’t run out,” Mr. Medvedev said. “And now we need to discuss and cooperate on various aspects on European missile defense. Now, in my view, time has come for discussions between technical aspects and, of course, we remain at our own positions, both the United States and Russian Federation.”
When he knew he was speaking for the microphones, Mr. Obama said only, ‘“We’ve got more work to do between our two countries. Dmitry identified some areas of continued friction — missile defense being an example. And what we’ve agreed to is to make sure that our teams, at a technical level, are in discussions about how some of these issues can be resolved.”
The U.S. and its NATO allies are pursuing a missile defense shield, while Russia objects that it would compromise its security. Mr. Rhodes said the U.S. has continuously told the Kremlin that the shield is not being developed as a defense against Russia, and that the two nations should move forward on a broad range of nuclear weapons issues rather than become mired over the shield issue.
Mr. Rhodes also painted a favorable picture of Mr. Obama’s meeting with the Chinese president, saying afterward that Mr. Hu “absolutely” agreed that North Korea should reverse its announcement of the launch.
“It’s absolutely the case that the Chinese have indicated to us they’re taking it very seriously,” Mr. Rhodes said. “We’ll see how events unfold.”
But Mr. Rhodes also said Mr. Obama tried to impress on the Chinese leader that there is a “bigger picture” when dealing with the North Koreans. He said the proposed launch is “in line with typical North Korean behavior over many years.”
North Korea has announced that it will launch a satellite atop a long-range missile in mid-April, which the U.S. and other nations say would be a violation of U.N. resolutions barring the use of technology that could be used for nuclear weaponry. The North’s announcement came just two weeks after the Obama administration had agreed to supply the impoverished, isolated nation with food aid in exchange for a suspension of North Korea’s nuclear programs.
Since the North’s announcement, Mr. Obama has been emphasizing that the U.S. won’t “reward” bad behavior. Mr. Rhodes strongly suggested that means the food aid would be withdrawn if North Korea proceeds with the missile launch.
Mr. Rhodes also said Mr. Obama discussed trade issues with the Chinese leader at the end of their meeting, but it was a minor portion of the discussion. The Obama administration earlier this month formally complained to the World Trade Organization about China’s alleged unfair trade practices in limiting the sale of certain rare-earth materials used in the manufacture of high-tech devices.