The Cable

Obama to Seoul for nuclear security summit

President Barack Obama is off to South Korea this weekend to attend the second biannual Nuclear Security Summit, which seeks to build on the event he hosted in Washington in April 2010. "This trip I think intersects with two of the president’s leading national security priorities," Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes said ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama is off to South Korea this weekend to attend the second biannual Nuclear Security Summit, which seeks to build on the event he hosted in Washington in April 2010.

"This trip I think intersects with two of the president’s leading national security priorities," Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes said Tuesday. "The first is the focus he has put on nuclear security along with non-proliferation since the beginning of his time in office. And the second is, of course, our increased focus on the Asia Pacific as a region of great importance to the United States."

Rhodes called South Korea "one of our strongest allies in the world and, of course, the cornerstone of our approach to Asia" — a characterization the Japanese might not be thrilled about, but consistent with Obama’s recent declaration that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is one of his world leader best buddies.

Obama will arrive in Seoul on March 25, and his first activity will be to visit the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. After that, he will have a bilateral meeting with another one of his buddies, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where the two will discuss Iran, Syria, and the broader upheaval in the Arab world. Following that meeting, Obama will meet with Lee, hold a press conference, and then attend a dinner with the South Korean leader.

On the morning of March 26, Obama will give a speech at Hankuk University. He is expected to discuss the drive to secure loose nuclear material around the world and to halt nuclear proliferation, the importance of peaceful nuclear energy, and the strength of the U.S.-South Korean relationship, said Rhodes.

Following that speech, Obama will hold a series of bilateral meetings, beginning with his last official meeting with soon-to-be former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — who Obama does not consider a buddy, even though they went to Ray’s Hellburger together during Medvedev’s visit to Washington.

Obama will then meet with President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and President Hu Jintao of China before attending a working dinner related to the summit. The Syria crisis will be on the agenda of Obama’s meeting with both Medvedev and Hu, according to Rhodes.

The summit will take place on March 27. Gary Samore, the president’s WMD czar and the U.S. sherpa for the summit, said that several countries made commitments in regards to the securing of nuclear material at the 2010 Washington summit and were making good on those promises.

"We think the Seoul summit will provide an opportunity for us to harvest many of those commitments.  In the two years since the Washington meeting, governments have been very effective in carrying out commitments they made in Washington two years ago," Samore said, placing the rate of commitments fulfilled at 80 percent.

Several countries will be making new commitments in Seoul, and there will be an added theme this time around of combating nuclear smuggling, Samore said.

NSC Senior Director for Asia Daniel Russel said that the personal relationship between Obama and Lee was stronger than ever. This will be Obama’s third trip to South Korea as president, and Lee has visited Washington twice. "I think that the two leaders have forged an unprecedentedly close relationship," he said.

Of course, it’s impossible to have a nuclear conference on the Korean Peninsula without the subject of North Korea’s nuclear program coming up, especially as North Korea plans to launch a long-range missile next month in direct violation of the agreement it struck with the United States last month.

"Clearly, in Korea, in his bilateral meetings with world leaders, the president will discuss this," said Russel. "But the situation that they face isn’t fundamentally different than what the president and the other leaders have been dealing with in terms of North Korean behavior all along. It is precisely because of the North Korean penchant for backtracking that we and our partners have insisted on them taking irreversible steps and do not reward promises. The North Korean tactics haven’t paid off for them in three years, and we hope that they choose to make the right decision."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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