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Obama to make first visit to Korean demilitarized zone

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:18 AM EDT, Wed March 21, 2012
North Korean soldiers look and film footage of the south side of the demilitarized zone in September 2011.
North Korean soldiers look and film footage of the south side of the demilitarized zone in September 2011.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: U.S. fighter jet crashes in South Korea; pilot safely ejects
  • President Obama visits South Korea next week for a nuclear security summit
  • While there, he plans to make his first visit to the demilitarized zone
  • North Korea's announcement of a satellite launch has increased tensions in the region

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) -- President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit the demilitarized zone that splits the Korean Peninsula in two for the first time on Sunday.

His planned visit to the heavily fortified border is part of a three-day trip to South Korea to participate in a summit meeting about nuclear security in Seoul.

Top officials from 54 countries including China and Russia will attend the summit meeting next week, but its message of international cooperation has been overshadowed by North Korea's announcement last week that it is planning to carry out a rocket-powered satellite launch in April.

South Korea has said it considers the satellite launch an attempt to develop a nuclear-armed missile, while the United States has warned the move would jeopardize a food-aid agreement reached with Pyongyang in early March.

North Korea says it has a right to a peaceful space program and has invited international space experts and journalists to witness the launch.

New N. Korean leader visits DMZ
A look inside the DMZ

Against that tense backdrop, Obama will visit the demilitarized zone and meet with some of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, two of his top national security advisers said Tuesday during a conference call.

The "fundamental message" of the visit is "underscoring the president's support for the American troops who are serving on the Korean Peninsula, and our support for the Republic of Korea, our very close and strong treaty ally," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, using South Korea's official name.

Although Obama himself has not been to the demilitarized zone during his two previous trips to South Korea as president, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit to the area in 2010.

And Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, used binoculars to peer into North Korea from a sandbagged bunker on the southern side of the border in 2002.

The date of Obama's visit " is virtually two years to the day" since the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, which left 46 Southern sailors dead, said Daniel Russel, director for Japan, South Korea, and North Korea at the U.S. National Security Council.

South Korea says a North Korean torpedo attack was to blame for the ship's sinking. The North has denied the accusation.

In a dramatic reminder of the U.S. military presence in South Korea, an American F16 fighter jet crashed Wednesday near Kunsan airbase on the western coast of South Korea.

The jet's pilot safely ejected before the crash, and no casualties were reported, said Maj. Eric Badger, public affairs officer of the 7th Air Force.

CNN's Paula Hancocks, Jethro Mullen and Bob Kovach contributed to this report.

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