S. Korea, US leaders seek next step on North Korea

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US President Barack Obama and South Korea's new leader on Tuesday plotted the next moves on North Korea amid signs that the bellicose regime has stepped back from the brink as it faces growing pressure.

On her first foreign trip since her election as North-east Asia's first woman leader, President Park Geun Hye is seeking both a show of unity and to keep momentum in South Korea's drive to build an outsized role in world affairs.

Ms Park and Mr Obama began a meeting in the Oval Office hours after North Korea's military launched its latest threat, vowing to turn border islands into a "sea of flames" if a shell fell on its side during joint US-South Korea drills.

But tensions have appeared to subside since earlier this year when North Korea carried out its third atomic test and vowed to prepare for nuclear war against the United States, in remarks shrill even by Pyongyang's standards.

A US defence official said that North Korea has shifted two medium-range Musudan missiles away from a launch site, signaling that - at least for the time being - the regime has no imminent plans to test-fire them.

China, the primary supporter of North Korea, took one of its most concrete measures to date with the state-owned Bank of China closing the account of a North Korean bank accused by Washington of supporting the nuclear program.

Mr Danny Russel, Obama's top aide on East Asia, said on Monday that it was too early to judge "whether the North Korean provocation cycle is going up, down or zigzagging."

"Many analysts have anticipated that the North Korean provocation cycle would culminate in some sort of a grand fireworks display, and no one can rule that out," Mr Russel said. "No one should be prepared to declare a victory yet."

Satellite images published by US think tanks have shown that North Korea is forging ahead with its nuclear programme and has almost finished construction of a light-water reactor that could provide plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Many US experts doubt that North Korea will ever get rid of its nuclear weapons, seeing the arsenal as key to the regime's survival, but officials nonetheless see talks as the only realistic option in the long term.

The Obama administration, which grew exasperated during its first term on how to handle North Korea, is eager to give the lead to Ms Park - partly as a way to deflect Pyongyang's allegations that South Korea is a US puppet.

Mr Obama will be listening to hear Ms Park flesh out her idea, offered during the election campaign, of "trustpolitik" - developing more stable relations between the two Koreas through respect of agreements.

Mr Russel said that the United States was ready to take "incremental steps to support economic growth and to adjust sanctions" but only in return for "credible and irreversible steps" to end its nuclear program.

Ms Park on Wednesday will address a joint meeting of Congress. Accompanied by leaders of major South Korean businesses, she will also visit the US Chamber of Commerce to mark one year after a free trade deal entered force.

She has invited US veterans to a dinner that marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice, a gesture sure to be welcomed by Americans concerned by anti-US sentiment in South Korea in the 2000s.

Relations improved markedly under South Korea's last president Lee Myung Bak, a conservative who became one of Obama's closest foreign allies.

Ms Park is expected to try to build some of the personal chemistry during a lunch with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

The Lee-Obama friendship came as South Korea avidly sought a global role incommensurate with its size. South Korea played host to two major global summits and has witnessed a phenomenal cultural export through superstar Psy.

While welcoming South Korea's rise, the United States has also been careful not to appear to favor the country over fellow ally Japan. The two nations have a tense relationship, with many Koreans resentful over Japan's colonial rule.

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