- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

LONDON (AP) — President Barack Obama and his South Korean counterpart agreed Thursday on the need for a “stern, united” international response if North Korea goes ahead with a planned rocket launch, as Obama juggled that intensifying crisis thousands of miles away and an global effort to fix the sagging economy.

Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met on the sidelines of a 20-nation summit on the economic crisis, spending the bulk of their time on the latest flare-up with the North, already in international crosshairs over its nuclear weapons program. The two leaders convened before joining their peers in session aimed at broad, coordinated responses to help the economy recover.

North Korea says it will send a communications satellite into orbit on a multistage rocket sometime from Saturday to Wednesday, but the U.S., South Korea and Japan call the plan a cover for testing long-range missile technology and a potential violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution banning ballistic activity by North Korea. Obama told Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday that the U.S. would consider the launch provocative and that the U.S. would seek punishment at the United Nations in response.

After the Obama-Lee meeting, the South Korean presidential office issued a statement saying that the two leaders had agreed to keep working on a verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear programs.

The statement added that the two agreed on the need “for a stern, united response from the international community” and to work together to make that happen. Senior White House officials confirmed that description of the meeting.

As the meeting was getting underway, Obama said in front of reporters that South Korea is one of “America’s closest allies and greatest friends” and he lauded Lee’s leadership. Obama said the two would discuss a range of issues, including defense and “peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula.”

A senior Obama aide said that Obama’s very friendly and complementary remarks toward Lee in public were meant as a display of his personal support for Lee’s handling of the North Korean issue. Lee has sought to drum up support from world leaders, including while in London, for punishing its neighbor if the launch goes forward and has been vilified in the North for his efforts.

CNN television said on its Web site that Pyongyang has started to fuel the rocket. The report, citing an unidentified senior U.S. military official, said the move indicates final preparations for the launch. Experts say the missile can be fired about three to four days after fueling begins. The Obama officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to more fully describe the private talks, would not comment on intelligence related to the rocket.

But they said, without elaborating, that the U.S. and Japanese militaries have been consulting closely. Japan is preparing to intercept any debris and regional powers have begun to deploy ships to monitor the launch. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that the U.S. has no interception plans.

The North has countered with its own warnings against any interception efforts — or even efforts to monitor the launch. It says its armed forces are at a high level of combat-readiness.

The leaders also discussed a free trade agreement between the two countries, the official said.

South Korea and the U.S. agreed in 2007 under former President George W. Bush to a free trade deal that would slash tariffs and other barriers to trade. The countries’ legislatures, however, failed to ratify the deal as their farmers and labor groups opposed it, and Obama has hinted he might seek to renegotiate it.

Obama told Lee that he understood there were difficulties with the deal on both sides, but that he wants to “make progress” on it, the officials said.

The G-20 summit brings together the world’s richest and developing economies. Leaders hope to approve language vowing tough, coordinated rules for financial markets, plus efforts to spark global recovery, while avoiding costly trade disputes. Obama and fellow leaders worked in their half-day of sessions Thursday — all conducted behind closed doors at the massive ExCel Centre on the outskirts of London to clear up divisions over how far to go with tougher financial regulation.

Making his first splash abroad as president, Obama says the summit will reflect “enormous consensus” on how to grapple with the world’s gravest economic crisis since World War II. Obama, his helicopter grounded by the fog, arrived by car at the facility. The summit’s host, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, gave Obama another warm greeting following their upbeat visit and news conference Wednesday.

Police in London said more than 80 people were arrested in sometimes violent clashes with protesters who vandalized property in the city’s financial district ahead of the summit.

Obama also has meetings on the summit sidelines with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. He will likely reassure Singh about plans to boost aid to India’s rival, Pakistan. With the Saudi leader, oil prices and Mideast peace efforts are on the agenda, with perhaps a delicate question about the king’s recent shake-up in succession plans.

AP White House Correspondent Jennifer Loven contributed to this story.

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