President Barack Obama inveighed against North Korea's plans to launch a long-range rocket next month in a rousing speech in the South Korean capital yesterday, as tensions over Pyongyang's plans cast a shadow over an international nuclear security summit.
The US President also pleaded with his Chinese and Russian counterparts to pressure North Korea to back down. Adding to the tension in Seoul, South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak vowed to "thoroughly retaliate against North Korea" if provoked by Pyongyang.
Defence Ministry officials in South Korea said two Aegis-class submarines, equipped with advanced radar and missiles, would shoot down the North Korean rocket if it veered over South Korean waters on a trajectory that's expected to carry it south of Japan into the South Pacific.
The developments came as world leaders at the nuclear summit in Seoul prepared a declaration against all forms of nuclear terrorism which says not a word about the issues dominating the entire gathering: the nuclear programmes of North Korea and Iran. While stepping up the rhetoric on Pyongyang, President Obama was anxious to get across the urgency of persuading Iran to desist from developing its own nuclear warheads. "There is time to solve this diplomatically, but time is short," he said. "Iran's leaders must understand that there is no escaping the choice before it."
On North Korea, the President was equally direct. In a special touch of drama midway through his talk at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, he declared that he wanted "to speak directly to the leadership in Pyongyang".
The US, he said, "has no hostile intent toward your country," is "committed to peace" and "prepared to take steps to improve relations" – the reason, he said, "we have offered nutritional aid to North Korean mothers and children".
Dangling the promise of food aid like bait, Mr Obama warned the North Koreans that "there will be no more rewards for provocations". The clear inference was the US would hold back on shipping 240,000 tons of emergency food aid, as agreed between American and North Korean envoys in Beijing on 29 February, if the North broke its promise of a moratorium on long-range missile launches and nuclear tests.
President Obama's most important sessions on the first day of the nuclear summit were backstage meetings with China's President Hu Jintao and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev. In both, he pressed the need to get North Korea to cancel its rocket-launch plans and honour the "moratorium" that the US believed was achieved last month.
Although he won expressions of "concern" and even a reported denunciation from President Medvedev, there was no real commitment to do more than urge the North to focus on "development".
"China is certainly talking politely," said Han Sung-joo, a former Foreign Minister and ambassador to Washington. "But I don't think China will actually do that," he added, referring to the risk of upsetting the North Koreans by withholding some of its support for the Pyongyang regime.
There was, however, the abiding sense that Pyongyang can get away with firing the rocket, despite all protests, on the calculated gamble that rhetoric will fail to gain significant traction in the run-up to the elections in both the US and South Korea later this year.
"North Korea has given a kind of dilemma to both the US and South Korea in that they will go ahead with the rocket launch," Mr Han said. If the US "breaks off the 29 February agreement" and cancels its commitment to provide emergency food aid, he said, the Americans "reduce the opportunity" for an planned visit by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the North Korean nuclear complex at Yongbyon.
"North Korea can then put all the blame on the US," Mr Han said. Although the US will have to find a way to punish North Korea, he warned it will be "difficult" in view of the Chinese and Russian positions.
North Korea plans to fire the rocket to celebrate the centenary on 15 April of the birth of founding leader Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the new leader, Kim Jong-un, whose father, Kim Jong-il had planned to launch the rocket before dying in December.
After the storm over the rocket has died down, analysts predict that the North will be ready to talk. They are likely to insist that the reason they launched a rocket was to put a satellite into orbit even though physicists here say the same rocket can deliver a warhead.
"Washington needs to manage the situation so they don't completely destroy the formal talks," said Choi Jin-wook, of the Korea Institute of National Unification. "They will still need to get North Korea involved in that dialogue."