Obama: America ready to defend South Korea

President Barack Obama: We will stand with South Korea (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

President Barack Obama on Tuesday pledged the United States would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with South Korea after what the White House branded a provocative, outrageous attack by North Korea on its neighbor. Its options limited, the U.S. sought a diplomatic rather a military response to one of the most ominous clashes between the Koreas in decades.

“South Korea is our ally. It has been since the Korean war,” Obama said in his first comments about the North Korean shelling of a South Korean island early Tuesday. “And we strongly affirm our commitment to defend South Korea as part of that alliance.”

Working to head off any escalation, the U.S. did not reposition any of its 29,000 troops in the South or make other military moves after North Korea fired salvos of shells into the island, setting off an artillery duel between the two sides.

The president, speaking to ABC News, would not speculate when asked about military options.

Obama called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak later Tuesday night, saying the U.S. would work with the international community to strongly condemn the attack that killed the two South Koreans and injured many more, the White House said.

The White House said the two presidents agreed to hold combined military exercises and enhanced training in the days ahead to continue the close security cooperation between the two countries.

Obama assured Lee that “the United States stands shoulder to shoulder with our close friend and ally, the Republic of Korea,” the White House statement said.

“President Obama said that North Korea must stop its provocative actions, which will only lead to further isolation, and fully abide by the terms of the armistice agreement and its obligations under international law,” the statement said.

The U.S. has relatively few options when dealing with the Pyongyang government. Military action is particularly unappealing, since the unpredictable North possesses crude nuclear weapons as well as a huge standing army. North Korea exists largely outside the system of international financial and diplomatic institutions that the U.S. has used as leverage in dealing with other hostile countries, including Iran.

North Korea has also resisted pressure from its major ally, China, which appears to be nervous about the signs of instability in its neighbor.

“We strongly condemn the attack and we are rallying the international community to put pressure on North Korea,” Obama said in the ABC interview, specifically citing the need for China’s help. Obama said every nation in the region must know “this is a serious and ongoing threat.”

An administration official said Tuesday evening that U.S. officials in Washington and in Beijing were appealing strongly to China to condemn the attack by arguing that it was an act that threatened the stability of the entire region, not just the Korean peninsula. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates phoned South Korea’s defense minister to express sympathy for the deaths of two of the South’s marines in the artillery shelling of a small South Korean island and to express appreciation “for the restraint shown to date” by the South’s government, a Pentagon spokesman said.

Obama called North Korea’s action “just one more provocative incident” and said he would consult with Lee on an appropriate response.

In his phone call to South Korea’s defense minister, Gates said the U.S. viewed recent attacks as a violation of the armistice agreement that ended the Korea War in 1953, and he reiterated the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.

Obama was awakened at 4 a.m. Tuesday with the news. He went ahead with an Indiana trip focused on the economy before returning to the White House after dark.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. would take a “deliberate approach” in response to what he also called provocative North Korean behavior. At the same time, other administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the emerging strategy, said the White House was determined to end a diplomatic cycle that officials said rewards North Korean brinksmanship.

In the past, the U.S. and other nations have sweetened offers to North Korea as it has developed new missiles and prototype nuclear weapons. North Korea is now demanding new one-on-one talks with the United States, which rejects that model in favor of group diplomacy that includes North Korea’s protector, China.

“We’re not going to respond willy-nilly,” Toner said. “We believe that it’s important that we keep a unified and measured approach going forward.”

Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill accused North Korea of starting the skirmish.

The violence comes as the North prepares for a dynastic change in leadership and faces a winter of food and electricity shortages. It is the latest of a series of confrontations that have aggravated tensions on the divided peninsula.

The incident also follows the North’s decision last week to give visiting Western scientists a tour of a secret uranium enrichment facility, which may signal an expansion of the North’s nuclear weapons program. Six weeks ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, as his heir apparent.

The administration official said the U.S. did not interpret North Korea’s aggression as a desire to go to war, but as yet another effort to extract concessions from the international community.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dave Lapan said no new equipment or personnel have been relocated to South Korea, while Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz seemed to shrug off the latest incident as something that Seoul can handle on its own.

“The North Koreans have undertaken over time a number of provocations that have manifested themselves in different ways,” Schwartz said.

The USS George Washington carrier strike group will join South Korean naval forces in the waters west of the Korean peninsula Nov. 28-Dec. 1 to conduct air defense and surface warfare readiness training that had been planned well before Tuesday’s attack, the White House said.

The artillery exchange was only the latest serious incident between the two nations. In March, a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, exploded and sank in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 sailors. South Korea accused the North of torpedoing the vessel; the North denied the allegation.

In August, the South Korean military reported that the North had fired 110 artillery rounds into the Yellow Sea near the disputed sea border but said the shells fell harmlessly into North Korean waters.

South Korean officials said Tuesday’s clash came after Pyongyang warned the South to halt military drills near the small South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.

When Seoul refused and began firing artillery into the water near the disputed sea border, the North bombarded Yeonpyeong, which houses South Korean military installations and a small civilian population.

Recent joint U.S.-Korean naval exercises and strenuous denunciations of the North may only have provoked the regime in Pyongyang. Some experts say the secretive regime may be trying to promote Kim Jong Un as a worthy successor who, like his father, is capable of standing up to the U.S.

“I think it may be all wrapped in this succession planning, in the way the North is looking at it,” said Robert RisCassi, a retired Army general who commanded U.S. forces in Korea from 1990-93.

The U.S.-South Korea exercises also angered China. Beijing is regarded as the key to any long-term diplomatic bargain to end North Korea’s nuclear program and reduce tensions on the peninsula.

But U.S. officials say the North’s motives and internal politics are opaque and sometimes appear inconsistent.

“I don’t know the answer to any question about North Korea that begins with the word ‘why,’” Gates told reporters Monday.

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Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Anne Flaherty, Ben Feller, Jim Kuhnhenn, Pauline Jelinek and Matthew Lee contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press

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4 Responses to "Obama: America ready to defend South Korea"

  1. Carl Nemo  November 24, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Brilliant strategy I must say. We’re now a ‘broke-butt” nation who has to borrow money from the Chinese et al. just to stay afloat; so we’ll have to borrow more money from the Chinese to crush North Korea their political allies in maintaining old-fashined, downhome, communist tyranny. Right!? #-o

    I’m sure the Chinese leadership are laughing their collective butts off listening to our “Paper tiger in chief”. This will surely give them an excuse to repatriate Taiwan as they launch a volley of MIRV’d ICBM’s on North America in order to simply put us out of our collective misery. / : |

    Carl Nemo **==

  2. woody188  November 24, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Obama: We will defend Kia and Samsung!

  3. Sandune  November 25, 2010 at 10:33 am

    I was a technical writer at Hughes Aircraft during the first go around with North Korea. I wrote the stuff for the guidance unit on the Falcon Missile. It was so top secret that the missile itself was done in Tucson and the guidance nose done in Culver City. Most of our nomenclature was T.S. and we respected the efficiency of the system. I wonder if another go around with North Korea could even find a team such as we had at the time. I’m concerned that Americans would never be trusted with the information we had at that time. My generation grew up after Pearl Harbor and we understood what secrecy meant.

    Carl, I wonder if America has what it takes to fight again in Korea……We certainly have lost faith in our government.

  4. Carl Nemo  November 25, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Ms. Price there’s no doubt we have the power to put North Korea out of its collective misery, but such an action would be the catalyst for possibly destabilization of the entire Far East surely between China and the U.S. and quite possibly precipitate a long overdue major clash over Taiwan and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese believe the untapped as well as the unproven reserves in this region could be as high as 200 billion barrels of oil along with gas too.

    We’ve made a grave mistakes in dealing with North Korea over the years. Too much talk and not enough action allowing them to come on line with nukes; simple fission weapons and not that of a thermonuclear nature, but just the same being highly destructive no different than that which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the final days of WWII. I always wince when I witness former presidents visiting with Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s infamous ‘dear leader’ nurturing his continued presence.

    The people of North Korea are always on the edge of starvation while being brutally controlled by vicious military and policing functions. Living there is a dystopian nightmare rendered in black and white; ie., the controllers vs. a vast underclass of slaves. The only reason North Korea has maintained its hegemony over the north is due to support from the “Red Chinese”, now morphed into ‘pirate capitalists’ courtesy of greedy Western businessmen, bankers and our now corrupt Congressional contingent. They’ve sown the wind and seemingly we shall all reap the whirlwind for their buildup of the Chinese into a financial and now military monolith to be reckoned with.

    The Chinese have been working on a “game-changing” land/sea warfare missile, the Dong Feng 21D designed to destroy aircraft carriers out to a range of 900 miles which will allow them to neutralize the presence of these mighty vessels of war. Little is known about them at this point in time, but they have been publicly displayed. Mind you these are launched from land out to sea and will have the ability to pinpoint and target a carrier. It’s also doubtful that these missiles we be armed with conventional explosives because such a military action is tantamount to strategic nuclear war; they will have a nuclear warhead which will allow for a more generous CEP (circular error probability) which is used to statistically calculate the damage to human populations upon detonation, but no doubt somes into play when targeting a carrier that’s underway. The CEP will be much tighter, but still applicable. Of course a dead strike against the carrier will turn it and its personnel into so much hot plasma. The only countermeasure will be reincarnation. / : |

    http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/08/06/chinese-carrier-killer-missile-game-changer-expert-says/

    This new weapon is causing grave discomfiture among our military planners. Again, we’ve created this Chinese monster and now have to pay the price. Twenty years ago they were still living in communes and farming most of China just to subsist, now they are sitting on a 100 trillion yuan surplus while we have 12 plus trillion USD of debt hanging over our heads. Courtesy of Bill Clinton’s “Chinagate” debacle he gave them a 20 year leap in nuclear weapons and delivery technology courtesy of Loral Space Division. Bill supports the political science theory of “multi-polarity” that no single nation should have a military advantage over the other. It makes for great think tank discussionals but is deadly when it comes to protecting one’s nation from aggressors with an agenda such as the “Red Chinese” and so too the Russians, still “commies” to the core.

    Carl Nemo **==

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