Amid North nuke test concerns, Obama meets with troops at Yongsan
SEOUL — With concerns mounting that North Korea could soon conduct its fourth nuclear test, the U.S. president issued a firm message to Pyongyang on Saturday that aggression against the South will not be tolerated.
“I want to be clear: The commitment that the United States has made to the Republic of Korea only grows stronger in the face of aggression,” President Barack Obama said during a speech to troops and their families at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, his second stop on a four-country tour of Asia. “North Korea’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons is a path that leads only to more isolation. It is not a sign of strength.”
Real freedom, he said, comes not from displays of military capabilities but from a democratic system where people can choose their own leaders and speak their minds.
“We don’t use our military might to impose these things on others, but we will not hesitate to use our military might to defend our allies and our way of life,” he said, drawing “hooahs” and applause from the crowd of 1,500.
South Korea has said that satellite imagery indicates the North may be readying for a fourth nuclear test, despite warnings of possible tougher sanctions from the international community.
“All they are waiting on is a political decision from Pyongyang, and they are capable of conducting a test at any time,” a South Korean government source said this week.
Obama and South Korean President Park Geun-hye held a rare meeting Saturday morning with top military officials on the peninsula, including U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who heads the joint Combined Forces Command.
The president’s visit to Seoul is meant to reinforce the U.S. diplomatic and military pivot to the Asia, and, in addition to concerns over North Korea, comes amid growing regional tensions with Beijing over disputed island territories and uncertainty about its military growth.
In introductory remarks to the president’s speech, Scaparrotti noted this was Obama’s fourth visit to Korea since taking office, underscoring the importance of the region to the administration.
Obama stressed the servicemembers’ important role in relations with Seoul and the decades-long bond between the two countries that he said was forged on the battlefield during the Korean War.
“All of you have helped keep this alliance the linchpin of stability and security in the Asia Pacific,” Obama said.
Declaring that “I could not be prouder to be your commander in chief,” Obama said the servicemembers were part of a tradition that laid the foundation for South Korea to become one of the world’s most dynamic economies.
“None of this was an accident,” he said. “Freedom is not an accident. Progress is not an accident. Democracy is not an accident. These things have to be fought for, and you’re part of that legacy.”
Col. Tommy Mize watched Obama's speech with his 6-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, perched on his shoulders. Seeing the president in Seoul was a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for her that was made even more special because of the location: Elizabeth's mother is Korean, he said.
“It's her first time to see the president, and the fact that we were able to do it together, it's something I'll always treasure,” Mize said.
After his 10-minute speech, the president mingled with the crowd, shaking hands and talking with a few children amid a sea of cell phones capturing his appearance.
Sgt. 1st Class Jeong Schellenger said she hoped Pyongyang heeded Obama’s message: “Maybe North Korea hears this and acts right.”
Born in the Seoul area, Schellenger met and married a servicemember stationed in South Korea and later became a U.S. citizen. She said Obama’s references to the long friendship between the two countries and getting to shake the commander-in-chief’s hand made her “feel more patriotic.”
“I love America, and I would do anything for this country,” she said.
During his two-day visit in Seoul, Obama laid a wreath for fallen troops at Seoul’s War Memorial of Korea and took part in a naturalization ceremony for U.S. servicemembers. He also participated in a ceremony returning nine historic royal seals taken from the country as mementos by a U.S. Marine six decades ago during the Korean War.
“I don’t think he fully appreciated the historic significance of them,” Obama said of the Marine. “After his passing, his widow discovered how important they were, and she graciously recognized that they appropriately belonged here in Korea.”
During a bilateral meeting with Park, the two presidents agreed to reconsider the timing of next year’s scheduled transfer of wartime leadership to South Korea, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News. If a war broke out today, the top U.S. commander would lead both U.S. and Korean forces.
After the transfer of operational wartime control, referred to as OPCON, takes place, that responsibility will fall to the top South Korea commander.
OPCON transfer is scheduled to take place in December 2015, but tensions with North Korea last year prompted Seoul to ask for a delay.
The transfer was initially supposed to take place in 2007 but was postponed until 2012. After the North’s sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010, the date was pushed forward again to 2015 amid questions about whether the South’s military was ready for the job.
Obama’s visit to Seoul has been largely overshadowed by the ongoing search for passengers of a ferry that sank of the peninsula’s southwest coast on April 16. Approximately 300 of the ferry’s 476 passengers are thought to have died in the disaster.
During his remarks on Saturday, Obama offered condolences for the victims.
“Our hearts are broken for our Korean friends,” he said.
As of Saturday morning, about 185 bodies had been recovered from the wreckage of the ship, according to Yonhap. The USS Bonhomme Richard participated in search-and-rescue operations in the days after the accident, and two U.S. Navy diving and recovery experts are currently embarked on South Korea’s Dokdo amphibious ship to act as advisers during the operation.
The USNS Safeguard, a rescue and recovery ship, arrived in Busan on Saturday and is waiting on a possible request from South Korea for assistance, the U.S. Navy said on Saturday.
The president is scheduled to travel Saturday to Malaysia for the next leg of his Asia trip, which will conclude with a stop in the Philippines.