Standing in the Rose Garden with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak Tuesday, President Obama today addressed two of the toughest international challenges facing his young administration: the disputed elections in Iran, and the continued pursuit of nuclear weapons by North Korea.
“I have said before I have deep concerns about the election,” the president said when asked if he had confidence in the election results, “and I think that the world has deep concerns about the election. You've seen in Iran some initial reaction from the supreme leader that indicates he understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election.”
In actuality, today’s expression of concern constituted new language from the President Obama. Yesterday, he said he was “troubled” by the violence surrounding the election and said he understood the Iranian government was looking into election irregularities.
But even as the president hardened his remarks, he acknowledged the risk of saying more.
“It's not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling – the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections,” President Obama said.
He repeated that when he sees “violence directed at peaceful protesters, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it's of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people. And my hope is — is that the Iranian people will make the right steps in order for them to be able to express their voices, to express their aspirations.”
The president suggested that he believes there’s been a shift in Iranian attitudes, that “there is a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past, and that there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy.”
“I stand strongly with the universal principle that people's voices should be heard and not suppressed,” the president said.
Asked about the United Nations Security Council resolution calling for the interdiction of arm shipments heading to or from North Korea, the president said the way that will be implemented has yet to be determined. “How we approach cooperation between various countries to enforce this, is something that the United States, South Korea, China, Russia, all relevant actors — Japan — all relevant actors will be discussing in the months to come.”
The president rejected North Korea’s demand to be treated as a nuclear power, calling it “unacceptable” and arguing it would create a “destabilizing situation” that profoundly threatens the security of the world, given the country’s past behavior, “the belligerent manner in which they are constantly threatening their neighbors,” as well as its “track record of proliferation” to non-state actors as well as other countries.
“We will pursue denuclearization on the Korean peninsula vigorously,” President Obama said. “So we have not come to a conclusion that North Korea will or should be a nuclear power.”
North Korea “will not find security or respect through threats and illegal weapons,” the president said, noting that on Friday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for “strong steps to block North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Now we must pursue a sustained and robust effort to implement this resolution together with our international partners.”
Speaking almost directly to the leaders of North Korea, the president said “there is another path available to North Korea, a path that leads to peace and economic opportunity for the people of North Korea, including full integration into the community of nations. That destination can only be reached through peaceful negotiations that achieve the full and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
Said President Lee, speaking in Korean, “under no circumstance are we going to allow North Korea to possess nuclear weapons.”
Asked if his country feared an imminent attack by North Korea, President Lee said the firm alliance with the U.S. would make North Korea “think twice about taking any measures that they will regret.”
“North Koreans must understand that their past behavior will not stand,” said President Lee. “And of course, not only the U.S.-Korea close partnership, but Japan, China and the rest of the international community will take part in this effort. And now the North Koreans will come to understand that this is different, that they will not be able to repeat the past or their past tactics and strategies. I urge the North Koreans to fully give up their nuclear weapons program and ambitions and to become a responsible member of the international community.”