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US president's visit to the Korean DMZ comes amid heightened rhetoric over North Korea's proposed rocket launch.
President Obama has urged North Korea to abandon a rocket launch planned for next month, warning the regime that it faced further isolation and the possible end to an aid deal if it engaged in “threats or provocations”.
Obama said the expected launch of a long-range rocket to coincide with the centenary of the birth of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15, would deepen the country’s isolation in the international community.
"Bad behavior will not be rewarded," Obama said in Seoul on the eve of an international summit on nuclear security. "There had been a pattern, I think, for decades in which North Korea thought if they had acted provocatively, then somehow they would be bribed into ceasing and desisting acting provocatively."
The US and its allies say the rocket launch would be a violation of a UN ban on nuclear and missile activity because the technology involved could be used in long-range missiles, including those carrying nuclear warheads. The launch could also derail a deal in which the North would halt missile tests and its uranium enrichment program in return for US food aid.
Earlier on Sunday, Obama stood at "freedom's frontier" and peered into the bleak North Korean countryside on Sunday, as world leaders arrived in Seoul to discuss the growing threat from the regime's nuclear weapons program.
Dressed in a black bomber jacket, Obama told US troops at Camp Bonifas, located close to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two countries, that they stood between freedom and prosperity in South Korea and oppression in the North.
"I could not be prouder of what you do," he said. "You guys are at freedom's frontier. The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer, could not be starker, both in terms of freedom and in terms of prosperity.
"When you think about the transformation that has taken place in South Korea during my lifetime, it is directly attributable to this long line of soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guardsmen who were willing to create the space and the opportunity for freedom and prosperity."
His visit to the DMZ, a two-and-a-half-mile-wide stretch of land that has separated the two countries since the end of the Korean War in 1953, came as North Koreans ended their official 100-day mourning period for their late leader, Kim Jong Il.
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State media said tens of thousands of people had gathered in Pyongyang to listen to speeches from senior figures in the regime. "We have to unite, unite and unite again behind dear comrade Kim Jong Un," the premier, Choe Yong Rim, was quoted as saying by Associated Press.
Over the past three months, North Korea has sought to strengthen the inexperienced Jong Un's position; those efforts will culminate in a rocket launch next month to mark the centenary of the birth of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung.
The country's supreme people's assembly and ruling Workers' party are expected to give Jong Un — Kim Jong Il's youngest son — grander titles designed to consolidate his grip on power: chairman of the defense commission and secretary general of the party.
Obama, the Chinese president Hu Jintao and other leaders will begin two days of talks on Monday aimed at strengthening defenses against nuclear terrorism. While Iran and North Korea are not on the official agenda, they are expected to dominate discussions on the sidelines.
Obama called on China, North Korea's main ally, to do more to persuade the regime in Pyongyang to return to six-party nuclear talks, stalled since it walked out in 2009 and conducted its second nuclear weapons test.
"What I've said to [China] consistently is rewarding bad behavior, turning a blind eye to deliberate provocations, trying to paper over these not just provocative words but extraordinarily provocative acts that violate international norms, that that's not obviously working," Obama said.
Australia and the Philippines have voiced concern about the rocket's trajectory, while Japan has threatened to shoot it down if it threatens its territory. So far China has only has urged the North to "stay calm, exercise restraint and avoid escalation".
North Korea's rocket launch, planned for next month, could jeopardize a recent deal that would give it access to US food aid in return for