REPORTING FROM PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA -- President Obama landed in South Korea early Sunday, and his first stop was slated to be the heavily fortified military encampment facing the country's secretive neighbor to the north.
The visit will be Obama's first to the demilitarized zone that has divided the Korean peninsula for nearly 60 years, and the first for an American president in just over a decade.
Obama traveled to Seoul to attend a global summit on securing loose nuclear weapons. But as his Sunday schedule shows, the status of the rogue nuclear program in North Korea is likely to outshine the formal agenda.
Under the new and untested leadership of Kim Jong Un, son of the late dictator Kim Jong Il,the regime in Pyongyang has arisen as a fresh puzzle for the United States and its allies. Kim surprised many last month by agreeing to halt its long-range missile program in return for much-needed food aid. But the leader seemed to reverse himself soon after by announcing plans to launch a satellite in mid-April. Such a launch would break the deal, U.S. officials say. Japan has threatened to shoot it down.
Obama will try to enlist help from the Chinese in persuading North Korea to back off the plan. He's scheduled to meet Monday with Chinese President Hu Jintao.
But first the president was expected to trek north about 25 miles from Seoul to the military outpost looking out at North Korea. Obama was expected to meet with some of the roughly 60 U.S. soldiers posted at the DMZ, which is guarded by a joint security force made up primarily of South Korean soldiers. The 2 1/2-mile-wide stretch is protected by land mines, barbed wire fencing and armed troops able to look out at the faces of their North Korean counterparts on the other side.
A compelling backdrop and rare reminder of Cold War anxiety, the trip has been one that all of Obama's recent predecessors have made. (President George H.W. Bush visited as vice president.)
President George W. Bush visited the DMZ in February 2002, at another tense time in relations. Bush had just included North Korea in the "axis of evil," a remark that unnerved South Koreans worried about the increasingly bellicose rhetoric. Bush then delivered a toned-down speech and expressed sympathy for the plight of North Koreans.
Obama arrived on much firmer ground with South Korean leaders. During his three-day visit, he's expected to emphasize solidarity with Seoul and make his first comments on the status of food aid pact.
Obama is slated to meet with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday.
-- Kathleen B. Hennessey
Photo: President Obama arrives at Osan Air Base in South Korea for a summit of world leaders to discuss nuclear issues. Credit: Ryu Seong-Il / Pool