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Obama visits DMZ ahead of nuclear summit

March 25, 2012

U.S. President Barack Obama visits the Demilitarised Zone, the tense military border between the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, on Sunday March 25. — Photo AP

OBSERVATION POST OUELLETTE: Razor-wire close to the border, President Barack Obama on Sunday paid his first visit to the tense zone separating North and South Korea amid new nuclear tensions. He told American troops stationed nearby they are protectors of ''freedom's frontier.''

Obama shook hands and spoke briefly in the dining hall at a US military camp just outside the 4-kilometer-wide Demilitarized Zone, then walked into the heavily patrolled no-man's land to tour a small post where South Korean forces patrol just 100 meters from the demarcation line.

The president, positioned behind bulletproof glass, peered through binoculars across the line that has bisected the Korean peninsula for 60 years. He spent about 10 minutes at the observation post, looking first toward North Korea, then back to the South. The US is threatening to cancel planned food aid to the North over its announcement that it will launch a long-range rocket next month, news that overshadows the gathering of world leaders committed to nuclear security that Obama will attend in Seoul.

''I could not be prouder of what you're doing,'' Obama told smiling American troops at Camp Bonifas at the edge of the DMZ. Obama said the same is true at every US military post, but ''there's something about this spot in particular.''

''You guys are ... at freedom's frontier. 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,'' Obama said.

Obama's visit takes place as North Koreans mark the end of the 100-day mourning period for longtime leader Kim Jong Il, who died of a heart attack in December. Since Kim's death, son Kim Jong Un has been paying a series of high-profile visits to military units and made his own trip to the ''peace village'' of Panmunjom inside the DMZ earlier this month.

''The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer, could not be starker,'' Obama told the troops.

That was a reference to the political freedom and prosperity in democratic South Korea, and the repression and desperate food shortages of the North.

In the midst of an election year focused on economic concerns at home, Obama has designed a rare Asia visit that features time in just one country. He'll use much of the time to keep pressure on North Korea to back off the planned rocket launch and return to disarmament talks. The United States has more than 28,000 troops in South Korea. North Korea plans to launch a satellite using a long-range rocket next month, which the US and other powers say would violate a U.N. ban on nuclear and missile activity because the same technology could be used for long-range missiles.

Taken by surprise, the US warned that a deal to resume stalled food aid to the North could be jeopardized if North Korea goes ahead.

The US considers the rocket launch practice for a ballistic missile test and a violation of North Korea's international responsibilities. The planned launch appears to be part of a long pattern of steps forward, then back in US dealings with North Korea, and plays into Republican claims that Obama is being played for the fool.

The goal of the large gathering of world leaders is to secure nuclear material and prevent it from being smuggled to states or groups intent on mass destruction.