, WASHINGTON, Jun 16 – US President Barack Obama was set Tuesday to meet with the leader of South Korea, who is seeking security guarantees as a standoff escalates with nuclear-armed North Korea.
The summit comes a day after the latest show of defiance by North Korea, which said some 100,000 people rallied to denounce a tightening of UN sanctions on the hard-line communist state for testing a nuclear bomb.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak has indicated that he wants Obama, who has set a goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, to reiterate that Seoul is under the US security umbrella.
Secretary of Defence Robert Gates reassured Lee in a meeting Monday the United States was committed to defend South Korea "through all necessary means, including the nuclear umbrella," Lee’s office said in a statement.
The United States stations some 28,500 troops in South Korea and more than 40,000 more in nearby Japan, which has tense relations with Pyongyang.
Lee, a conservative businessman, took over last year and — delighting many in Washington — reversed a decade-long "sunshine policy" under which South Korea put few restrictions on aid to the impoverished North.
The US Congress greeted him by passing a resolution demanding that North Korea end its "hostile rhetoric" against Lee, routinely berated in Pyongyang’s state media as "the traitor."
"I think it’s important that the president and the secretary of state know that Congress will stand behind them if they have to take stronger action," said the resolution’s main sponsor, Republican Congressman Peter King.
The resolution also urges North Korea to return to a six-nation disarmament accord, which it bolted from in April after testing a long-range missile.
China, the North’s neighbour and main ally, which has always favoured cautious diplomacy with Pyongyang, put its weight behind the UN resolution on Tuesday by pledging to uphold required inspections of suspected shipments of banned items related to nuclear and missile activities.
"Regarding the cargo inspection issue, there are explicit provisions in UN resolution 1874. Like other members of the Security Council, China will implement the resolution earnestly," said foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang.
There has been growing speculation in Washington that North Korea may conduct its third-ever nuclear test, even after the United Nations Security Council last week unanimously voted to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang.
In the face of ongoing international consternation, however, media reports from Seoul detailed how the North finished preparatory work for a new launch pad for long-range missiles on its northwest coast.
While no missile is at the site, satellite photos of the Dongchang-ri site reportedly showed the structure to be some 165 feet (50 meters) tall, meaning it would be capable of firing an intercontinental ballistic missile measuring 130 feet (40 meters) or longer.
At Pyongyang’s giant rally, military officer Pak Jae-Gyong vowed North Korea is ready to "deal telling blows at the vital parts of the US and wipe out all its imperialist aggressor troops no matter where they are in the world," according to state media.
While North Korea has posed an early test for the Obama administration, some analysts believe its military moves are primarily for domestic reasons as ailing leader Kim Jong-Il, 67, tries to bolster authority and establish a succession plan involving his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un.
Lee’s visit had been planned months in advance as part of the young Obama administration’s outreach to key allies.
The agenda was originally expected to focus on broadening the two nations’ alliance, which was borne of the 1950-53 Korean War but has expanded to include cooperation in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and economic issues.
Barring rain, Lee is slated to be the first foreign leader to appear with Obama in the Rose Garden next to the White House’s Oval Office, a favourite setting for presidents to sign legislation or make major announcements.
Lee is hoping to push Obama to move ahead with a free trade agreement, sealed in 2007 after painstaking negotiations and sometimes violent protests in Seoul.