SEOUL — President Obama struck a hopeful note recently when he compared the unification of North and South Korea to the reuniting of East and West Germany, but the goal of uniting the peninsula seems as distant as ever.
South Korea’s minister of unification, Yu Woo-ik, acknowledged to reporters during the nuclear security summit in Seoul last week the “sad fact” that there has been virtually no progress recently and that the death in December of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il has only heightened instability.
He said the change in leadership — Kim’s son Kim Jong-un is believed to be in control — has frozen efforts to promote cooperation between the two nations through cultural and humanitarian programs.
The North “must immediately stop” its planned launch this month of a satellite atop a long-range missile, Mr. Yu said, even as intelligence reports showed Pyongyang was proceeding with preparations at the launch site in the northwestern part of the country.
The Obama administration and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak say the launch would violate a U.N. resolution barring the use of missile technology that could be used for nuclear weaponry.
Mr. Obama, in a speech at Hankuk University in Seoul, said people also despaired at the height of the Cold War that East and West Germany would ever unite again, but “the forces of history and hopes of man could not be denied.”
“No two places follow the same path, but this much is true: The currents of history cannot be held back forever,” Mr. Obama said to enthusiastic applause. “The deep longing for freedom and dignity will not go away. So, too, on this divided peninsula. The day all Koreans yearn for will not come easily or without great sacrifice. But make no mistake, it will come.”
Bryce Wakefield, an Asia analyst at the Wilson International Center in Washington, said Mr. Obama was offering little more than a “rhetorical gesture.”
“South Koreans were very happy to hear him mention eventual reunification,” Mr. Wakefield said. “But I think officials in Seoul probably had more on their minds with the impending launch of the North Korean satellite.”
Despite Mr. Obama’s lofty rhetoric, the president also appeared to be stung by North Korea’s launch announcement, only two weeks after Pyongyang agreed to halt its nuclear programs in exchange for a promise of food aid from the U.S.
Obama administration officials have all but said the food will be withheld if North Korea proceeds with the launch. Mr. Obama also engaged in some international trash talking about the North while visiting Seoul.
“If a country can’t feed its people effectively, if it can’t make anything of any use to anybody, if it has no exports other than weapons, and even those aren’t ones that in any way would be considered state of the art, if it can’t deliver on any indicators of well-being for its people, then you’d think you’d want to try something different,” Mr. Obama said. “I don’t get a sense that they’ve made that decision yet. But my suspicion is — at some point, that’s what the North Korean people are going to be looking for.”
Mr. Obama said he and Mr. Lee are determined to “break that pattern” of giving North Korea food or other aid as a reward for halting, at least temporarily, its belligerent actions.
“They need to understand that bad behavior will not be rewarded,” Mr. Obama said. “I suspect that it will ultimately end up having the impact intended, but in the meantime, it’s the people of North Korea that are most likely to suffer.”
Mr. Wakefield said Mr. Obama’s vow not to reward provocation was “the important part of that message.”
“Essentially, that means the deal where the United States provides food aid to North Korea will be nixed if the launch goes ahead,” he said. “I’m fairly certain the launch will go ahead. It’s hard for North Korea to back down now.”