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Obama Confronts Nuclear Threats On World Stage

By BEN FELLER and ANNE GEARAN 03/24/12 08:45 PM ET AP

Obama Nuclear
US President Barack Obama boards Air Force One Andrew Air Force Base in Maryland on early March 24, 2012 en route to South Korea to attend 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit.

SEOUL, South Korea — President Barack Obama is opening his pitch for faster work to lock down nuclear material that could be used by terrorists with an up-close look at the nuclear front lines along the heavily militarized border with volatile North Korea.

Obama arrived in Seoul on Sunday morning, local time, for three days of diplomacy. 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 a planned rocket launch and return to disarmament talks.

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. Progress has been uneven since the ambitious goal of lockdown by 2014 was first set out by Obama at a similar session in Washington in 2010. No breakthroughs are expected now.

Right across the border but not participating: nuclear North Korea, labeled by the White House as "the odd man out." It is brinksmanship with North Korea and Iran, another nation not invited to the summit, that has dominated much of the nuclear debate and that will cast an unquestionable shadow over talks in Seoul.

Obama has called nuclear terrorism the gravest threat the United States and the world may face. North Korea is a prime suspect in the proliferation of some nuclear know-how, along with missiles that could be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction. Iran is suspected in the arming of terrorists with non-nuclear weaponry, and the U.S. and other nations suspect Iran's nuclear energy program could be converted to build a bomb.

Syria, Pakistan and other global trouble spots are also on the agenda for separate meetings with global leaders attending a progress-check summit of more than 50 nations on Obama's goal of locking down nuclear material around the world by 2014.

Obama's first business: a visit to the volatile Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea, a show of strength amid confusion and disappointment over the state of diplomacy with the nuclear-armed North.

The symbolic visit to the border separating the Korean peninsula will be the fourth by a U.S. president. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all visited the DMZ; other U.S. officials regularly go there.

The border zone is a Cold War anachronism, a legacy of the uncertain armistice that ended the Korean War nearly 60 years ago. Hundreds of thousands of troops stand ready on both sides of the border zone, which is littered with land mines and encased in razor wire. Obama officials said the goal is to thank U.S. and South Korean military members and show U.S. resolve from "the front line of democracy" on the peninsula.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. warned that a deal to resume stalled food aid to the North could be jeopardized if North Korea goes ahead.

The U.S. 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 U.S. dealings with North Korea, and plays into Republican claims that Obama is being played for the fool.

Campaign politics surrounding a sitting president typically subside when he is abroad, although Obama's posture toward threats to America will be scrutinized by his rivals.

The timing comes as daily economic worries, not foreign ones, are driving the concerns of American voters. Yet the setting does give Obama a few days to hold forth on the world stage while, back home, Republican presidential candidates keep battling each other.

Halfway into the four-year effort to safeguard nuclear materials from terrorists, many nations have taken voluntary steps to corral material that could be used for terrorist weapons. But they have sidestepped larger questions about how to track all such material, measure compliance and enforce security.

The summit will bring together nuclear-armed nations, plus those with civilian nuclear energy plants and several seeking to build them. Several non-nuclear nations and international organizations, including the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency, are attending.

Countries known or suspected to have nuclear weapons are the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Scores of countries still have research reactors fueled by weapons-usable uranium, and medical devices that use radioactive materials that could be fashioned into a "dirty bomb" are scattered all over the world.

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Feller is AP's White House correspondent; Gearan is an AP national security writer.

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Filed by Melissa Jeltsen  |