While Mr. Obama is in South Korea for a Group of 20 meeting on fixing the stricken global economy, relations with North Korea are also expected to be on the agenda, particularly in talks with the host nation. The United States and its allies are seeking ways to get North Korea to return to six-party talks aimed at convincing the North to drop its weapons program.
Mr. Obama will meet later Thursday with the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, whose country’s relations with the North have become even more tense since the sinking in March of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, apparently by a North Korean torpedo.
There are signs that there could be movement afoot as to the approach of the United States and its allies toward the reclusive regime of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-il. Earlier this week, Mr. Lee dropped demands that the North apologize for the Cheonan’s sinking as a precondition of talks.
In a strongly worded statement made before thousands of soldiers and Marines gathered on a chilly morning, Mr. Obama called North Korea a starving nation whose economic failures were visible even from space, where at night “the brilliant lights of Seoul” can be seen giving way “to the utter darkness of the North.”
“But there is another path available to North Korea,” Mr. Obama said. “If they choose to fulfill their international obligations and commitments to the international community, they will have the chance to offer their people lives of growing opportunity instead of crushing poverty.”
During the speech, Mr. Obama also honored the 37,000 Americans and far larger number of South Koreans who died fighting the North during the 1950-53 Korean War. He also led the audience in a standing ovation for 62 veterans of that war who attended the speech at the Yongsan base, in the center of this city of gleaming skyscrapers and modern highways.
“Gentlemen, we are honored by your presence,” Mr. Obama said. “We are grateful for your service. And the world is better off because of what you did here.”