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Amid North nuke test concerns, Obama meets with troops at Yongsan

President Barack Obama shakes the hand of a soldier as troops take photos of him at Yongsan Garrison, South Korea, on Saturday, April 26, 2014. Obama's speech capped his 2-day tour of the country prior to departing for Malaysia.

SEOUL — With concerns mounting that North Korea could soon conduct another nuclear test, President Barack Obama delivered 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,” Obama said during a speech to troops and their families at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul. “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 on 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 — the second leg of his Asia-Pacific trip ­— was meant to reinforce the U.S. diplomatic and military pivot to the Asia.

In introductory remarks to the president’s speech, Scaparrotti noted this was Obama’s fourth visit to South Korea since taking office, underscoring the importance of the region to the administration.

In addition to his tough words for North Korea, 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 taking video 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 had 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.

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.

That responsibility will fall to the top South Korea commander after the transfer of operational wartime control, commonly referred to as OPCON, takes place.

OPCON transfer is scheduled to take place in December 2015, but tensions with North Korea last year pushed Seoul to ask for a delay.

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.

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.

rowland.ashley@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rowland_Stripes

 

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