In the face of mounting threats from North Korea, President Barack Obama on Thursday urged closer security ties among its chief allies in Asia and increased cooperation with strategic rival China to discourage Pyongyang from further advances in nuclear weapons.
As world leaders gathered for a nuclear security summit, Obama first met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye. Together, they warned North Korea would face even tougher sanctions and more isolation if provokes again with nuclear and missile tests.
Then Obama met Chinese President Xi Jinping and both called for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. China also agreed to implement in full the latest economic restrictions imposed by the U.N. Security Council against Pyongyang.
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Representatives from more than 50 nations, along with international organizations like the United Nations and INTERPOL, will attend the two-day Nuclear Security Summit. The meeting is the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit, initiated by the Obama administration in order to improve international cooperation in terms of securing nuclear materials. This year's summit will include a special session focused on the threat of groups like ISIS. However, concerns about North Korea are also commanding focus.
"Of great importance to both of us is North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons, which threatens the security and stability of the region. President Xi and I are both committed to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Obama said at the start of his meeting with Xi.
"China and the U.S. have a responsibility to work together," Xi said in his comments made to reporters through an interpreter. As for their "disputes and disagreements," the Chinese leader said the two sides could "seek active solutions through dialogue and consultation."
North Korea's fourth nuclear test in January, followed by a space a launch in February, have heralded more convergence among often-fractious powers in East Asia - at least on the need to press the government of Kim Jong Un toward disarming.
Japan and South Korea have persuasive reasons to get along. They both host U.S. forces and are both in range of North Korean missiles. But their relations have been plagued by historical differences that date back to Japan's colonial occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century and its military's use of sex slaves during World War II.
But those tensions have eased some. Abe said North Korea nuclear and missile capability is a "direct and grave threat" to them all.
"Should it choose to undertake yet another provocation, it is certain to find itself facing even tougher sanctions and isolation," Park said of Pyongyang.
Young leader Kim Jong Un has also alienated the North's traditional benefactor and main trading partner, China. The U.S. has long urged Beijing to take a more forceful role in pressing North Korea, and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang said after the Obama-Xi meeting that the two sides agreed the new U.N. resolution "should be implemented in full and in its entirety."
The U.S. and China also released joint statements vowing robust collaboration to improve nuclear security and to implement a global climate change deal, and reported progress on the issue of cyber security.
But they were at stark odds in other areas.
According to Zheng, Xi told Obama that China was "firmly opposed" to the U.S. deploying a new missile defense system in South Korea, saying it was against China's national security interests and would the effect the strategic balance in the region.
The U.S. and Seoul are considering that deployment to counter the threat from the North. China contends the system would also give the U.S. radar coverage over Chinese territory. Russia opposes it as well.
Washington has also opposed China's move to build artificial islands and military facilities in the disputed South China Sea. Japan and South Korea are similarly concerned about China's military build-up and assertive actions in the region's disputed waters.
Obama also met Thursday with French President Francois Hollande, amid steep concerns about terrorism in Europe following Islamic State-linked attacks in Paris and Brussels. The nuclear security summit continues on Friday with a special session focused on preventing IS and other extremists from obtaining nuclear materials and attacking urban areas.
The developments in Belgium show "there is at least some interest by ISIL" in breaching nuclear security, said Laura Holgate, the National Security Council Senior Director for Weapons of Mass Destruction.
That said, there's no indication that the surveillance of Belgian nuclear scientists was part of a broader plan to acquire nuclear materials, Holgate added. "We don't have any information that a broader plot exists," she said. The U.S. has been working closely with Belgium on nuclear security issues, she added.
On Thursday, the U.S. said a strengthened nuclear security agreement among nations was finally set to take force following ratification by a critical mass of countries. The stricter rules include new criminal penalties for smuggling nuclear material and expanded requirements for securing materials and nuclear facilities worldwide, and are intended to reduce the likelihood of terrorists getting their hands on ingredients for a bomb.
The United States says it's making progress in reducing its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium. The White House says it's declassifying and publicly releasing a national inventory of highly enriched uranium for the first time since 1996. As of late 2013, the U.S. had 586 metric tons of highly enriched uranium. That's a drop from the 741 metric tons the U.S. had in 1996.
Fissile materials like highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium can be used to make nuclear bombs.