Barack Obama to visit demilitarised zone between North and South Korea
BARACK Obama is to visit the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea this weekend, as China scrambled to save a deal that could have paved the way for North Korea to return to international negotiations over its nuclear disarmament.
The Obama visit ahead of an international nuclear security summit in Seoul was announced on Tuesday night by senior White House officials, and has the potential to raise tensions in the area, analysts said.
The visit comes three weeks after North Korea surprised the world by offering to suspend its uranium enrichment and missile testing programmes in return for desperately needed US food aid.
The offer raised hopes that North Korea's new leader Kim Jong-un might be preparing to plot a new course for the near-bankrupt nation, but these were swiftly dashed last week when the North announced a new ballistic missile test.
Mr Obama, who has said he will withdraw the offer of food aid if the North proceeds with the test, will follow in the footsteps of George W Bush, who visited the DMZ in February 2002, weeks after he branded North Korea part of the "Axis of Evil".
Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both visited during their terms, with the former describing the area, which was left as a buffer between the two Koreas after the end of the Korean War in 1953, as "the scariest place on earth".
Officials said that Mr Obama wanted to show support for the alliance for South Korea and also US soldiers at the demilitarised zone which is surrounded by barbed wire and minefields and bisects the Korean peninsula.
US analysts said that North Korea could take the visit as an inflammatory but that it had been planned regardless of the state of the relations with the North.
"North Korea will no doubt play this as a provocation, but this was a move that was being talked about even if the deal had collapsed, which now looks likely," Bonnie S. Glaser, Korea expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told The Daily Telegraph.
Hopes for a positive outcome to the so-called 'leap year' deal that was announced on February 29 plummeted last week when North Korea announced it would conduct a satellite launch to mark the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Stalinist state.
A similar 'satellite' launch in 2009 was the catalyst for international sanctions after the US and its allies said the launch was a covert test for Pyongyang's ballistic missile programme, which contravenes several UN resolutions.
China, the last ally of North Korea, has since held two emergency meeting with officials from the regime in an attempt to dissuade them from the launch and save the talks.
"We hope North Korea and the United States continue dialogue and maintain contact, and cherish these hard-earned achievements," said Luo Zhaohui, Beijing's envoy to the North "This has important significance in alleviating the situation on the peninsula and improving U.S.-North Korea relations."