North Korea remains U.S. priority

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North Korea remains U.S. priority

Despite excluding any mention of North Korea in his last State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama still prioritizes the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, a stance that was evidenced in a telephone conversation this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The White House said in a statement that Obama and Putin on Wednesday had “discussed the importance of a strong and united international response to North Korea’s nuclear test,” which they agreed was carried out in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The call marked the first time the two leaders have spoken since North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, which Pyongyang claimed was a hydrogen bomb.

While the two leaders have differed in their views regarding other global issues, including the crisis in Ukraine and their approach to the civil war in Syria, North Korea remains a matter on which they agree.

The Kremlin said in a statement that should North Korea’s hydrogen bomb test be confirmed, it should face a “harsh international response.” According to Russia’s presidential office, Putin also asked for relevant countries to show restraint and refrain from actions that could incite a military escalation in the region.

Some U.S. lawmakers and international analysts expressed surprise that Obama did not acknowledge North Korea or its nuclear test in his final State of the Union address, broadcast nationally Tuesday.

The decision contrasted that made three years ago, when Obama spoke out against Pyongyang for carrying out its third nuclear just hours before his State of the Union address in 2013.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry similarly excluded mentioning North Korea in his foreign policy speech, delivered Wednesday at the National Defense University in Washington.

According to Ben Rhodes, a senior presidential aide, the omissions were deliberate.

Obama, he said, refrained from acknowledging the test in order to deprive the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un of the attention he was seeking.

“The fact of the matter is, if there’s one thing I know about the leader of North Korea, it’s that he likes attention,” Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said in a briefing Wednesday at the Foreign Press Center.

“[Kim would] probably like nothing more than for the president to spend a lot of time talking about him in the State of the Union.”

“We didn’t feel particularly compelled to give him that attention,” he added, because “the way you show strength in the world should not be defined by the occasional provocative launch or test of a device while your own people are starving.”

Still, Rhodes said that North Korea continues to be a “huge priority” for Obama, who is personally overseeing Washington’s response to Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test.

The U.S. president has also reached out to President Park Geun-hye and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Rhodes went on to highlight the importance of trilateral cooperation in improving missile defense coordination and added that Washington is considering additional measures, including the implementation of sanctions both by the United States and the UN Security Council.

In his remarks, the White House aide did not make any direct reference to the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) battery on the Korean Peninsula.

The missile defense program is designed to shoot down missiles closer to their point of origin than South Korea is currently capable of.

Thaad’s placement has been controversial because it comes with a radar system that can cover more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles); both China and Russia have argued that it goes against their security interests and have expressed concern that it may be used as a method of surveillance against them.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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