- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

LONDON (AP) - Juggling crises, President Barack Obama joined his South Korean counterpart Thursday in calling for a “stern, united” world response if North Korea goes ahead with a long-range rocket launch.

Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met on the sidelines of a 20-nation summit aimed at strengthening a global response to the sagging economy. The two leaders spent the bulk of their time on the latest flare-up with the North, already in international crosshairs over its nuclear weapons program.

Pentagon officials say that North Korea has begun final preparations for its threatened missile test, moving fuel trucks and fueling equipment to a coastal launch site. But three senior U.S. defense officials said Thursday it is unclear whether actual fueling had begun. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on intelligence matters.

The intensifying crisis forced Obama, at least briefly, to pivot from his economic mission in London.

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.

The South Korean presidential office issued a statement saying that Obama and Lee 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.

In its own statement, the White House confirmed that Obama and Lee agreed on the need for “a unified response by the international community in the event that North Korea launches a long-range missile.”

Obama ignored a reporter’s shouted question about his concerns about the potential launch.

But as his meeting with Lee got 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.

The White House also announced that Lee would visit Obama in Washington on June 16.

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.

Yet a senior U.S. defense official told The Associated Press that nothing concretely pointed to such operations being underway.

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.

Lee and Obama also discussed a free trade agreement between their 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, conducted behind closed doors at the massive ExCel Centre in the city’s east Docklands district.

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 met on the summit sidelines with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah; the two didn’t speak when reporters were led in to photograph the pair. Oil prices and Mideast peace efforts were likely on the agenda, with perhaps a delicate question about the king’s recent shake-up in succession plans.

Obama later planned to meet with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He will likely reassure Singh about plans to boost aid to India’s rival, Pakistan.


Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this story.

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