U.S., S. Korea "United" Over Rocket Launch

President Barack Obama, left, meets with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak at the G-20 summit at the ExCel center in London, April 2, 2009, ahead of the G20 summit being held in London.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
President Obama and his South Korean counterpart agreed Thursday on the need for a "stern, united" international response if North Korea goes ahead with a planned rocket launch.

Mr. Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met on the sidelines of a 20-nation summit on the economic crisis, spending the bulk of their time on the latest flare-up with the North, already in international crosshairs over its nuclear weapons program. The two leaders convened before joining their peers in session aimed at broad, coordinated responses to help the economy recover.

North Korea says it will send a communications satellite into orbit on a multistage rocket sometime from Saturday to Wednesday, but the U.S., South Korea and Japan call the plan a cover for testing long-range missile technology and a potential violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution banning ballistic activity by North Korea. Mr. Obama told Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday that the U.S. would consider the launch provocative and that the U.S. would seek punishment at the United Nations in response.

CBS News White House correspondent Chip Reid reports that the two men made no public mention of the standoff with North Korea, but after the Obama-Lee meeting, the South Korean presidential office issued a statement saying that the two leaders had agreed to keep working on a verifiable dismantling of North Korea's nuclear programs.

The statement added that the two agreed on the need "for a stern, united response from the international community" and to work together to make that happen.

Senior White House officials confirmed that description of the meeting.

The North Korean missile is on the launch pad, being fueled and could blast off as early as tomorrow night, reports CBS News correspondent David Martin. It's carrying what the North Koreans call a communications satellite, which probably looks a lot like the one former weapons inspector David Albright saw once saw there.

"It's called Lodestar and it's really just something that goes beep beep beep," Albright told Martin. "It's not a sophisticated satellite by any means."

So why are some of the world's most powerful nations, including the U.S., warning there will be a stern response?

"The trouble is that that same missile can be reconfigured into an intercontinental ballistic missile," Albright said.

That missile could someday fire a nuclear warhead at the westernmost parts of the U.S. but Albright says there's a more immediate concern.

"You can be guaranteed that there are going to be some customers there at this launch, maybe Iranians, maybe others, who are going to be very interested if it succeeds in trying to buy into that technology," he said.

The U.S. will have its own missile defense system on alert but will hold fire as long as the North Korean missile does not threaten American territory.

Instead the U.S. will ask the United Nations to impose sanctions against North Korea for violating a ban on missile testing, Martin reports.

CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reports that neither Mr. Obama or Lee hinted Thursday at what specific actions they might take in response to a rocket launch by the North, but both countries have said they will take the matter to the United Nations Security Council, hoping for tougher sanctions.

As the meeting was getting underway, Mr. Obama said in front of reporters that South Korea is one of "America's closest allies and greatest friends" and he lauded Lee's leadership. Mr. Obama said the two would discuss a range of issues, including defense and "peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula."

A senior Obama aide said that Mr. Obama's very friendly and complementary remarks toward Lee in public were meant as a display of his personal support for Lee's handling of the North Korean issue. Lee has sought to drum up support from world leaders, including while in London, for punishing its neighbor if the launch goes forward and has been vilified in the North for his efforts.

CNN said on its Web site that Pyongyang has started to fuel the rocket. The report, citing an unidentified senior U.S. military official, said the move indicates final preparations for the launch. Experts say the missile can be fired about three to four days after fueling begins. The Obama officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to more fully describe the private talks, would not comment on intelligence related to the rocket.

But they said, without elaborating, that the U.S. and Japanese militaries have been consulting closely. Japan is preparing to intercept any debris and regional powers have begun to deploy ships to monitor the launch. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that the U.S. has no interception plans.

Map: Obama's First Overseas Trip
A day-by-day guide to one of the most closely watched presidential trips in recent memory.

The North has countered with its own warnings against any interception efforts - or even efforts to monitor the launch. It says its armed forces are at a high level of combat-readiness.

The leaders also discussed a free trade agreement between the two countries, the official said.

South Korea and the U.S. agreed in 2007 under former President George W. Bush to a free trade deal that would slash tariffs and other barriers to trade. The countries' legislatures, however, failed to ratify the deal as their farmers and labor groups opposed it, and Obama has hinted he might seek to renegotiate it.

Mr. Obama told Lee that he understood there were difficulties with the deal on both sides, but that he wants to "make progress" on it, the officials said.