CAMP BONIFAS, South Korea -- President Barack Obama visited South Korea's tense border with the North on Sunday in a show of solidarity with U.S. ally Seoul and a message of resolve to Pyongyang's new young ruler in his country's nuclear standoff with the West.
Arriving on the eve of a global summit on nuclear security hosted by South Korea, Obama flew by helicopter to a U.S. base on the edge of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to meet troops stationed there and get a first-hand look at one of the world's most heavily fortified frontiers.
His tour, which followed in the footsteps of White House predecessors and bristled with Cold War symbolism, came amid rising concern over a planned North Korean rocket launch next month that threatens to derail a deal to resume U.S. food aid.
Washington has condemned reclusive North Korea's rocket launch plan as a violation of its promise to halt long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and uranium enrichment. Obama plans to lobby the leaders of China and Russia at the Seoul summit to ratchet up pressure on Pyongyang.
The White House cast Obama's first visit to the DMZ, which has bisected the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953, as a way to showcase the strength of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and thank some of the more than 20,000 American troops still deployed in South Korea.
From an observation platform near the line of demarcation that Obama was also set to visit, Obama would have a chance to peer through binoculars at nearby North Korean border posts.
Televised images of Obama venturing into the heavily mined DMZ could burnish his commander-in-chief credentials in an election year and help counter Republican accusations that he has not been tough enough on America's foes.
But North Korea's defiance is clouding Obama's much-touted nuclear disarmament agenda, which is also being challenged by Iran's continued nuclear developments in the face of sanctions and international criticism.
Obama will join more than 50 other world leaders on Monday for a follow-up to the inaugural nuclear security summit he organized in Washington in 2010 to help combat the threat of nuclear terrorism.
While North Korea and Iran are not on the guest list or the official agenda, they are expected to be the main focus of Obama's array of bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the two-day summit.
Obama's first stop before holding talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was the DMZ, a 2.5-mile wide buffer that cuts through the peninsula stretching from coast to coast. Then U.S. president Bill Clinton called it the "scariest place on Earth" during a visit in 1993.
It was drawn up at the end of the 1950-53 conflict, which ended in a truce that has yet to be finalized with a permanent peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas in effect still at war.
Obama's visit also coincides with the end of the 100-day mourning period for the North's long-time leader, Kim Jong-il, who died in December.
His successor and youngest son, Kim Jong-un, was joined by other high ranking military and party officials at a ceremony in Pyongyang on Sunday to pay respects to his father.
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