For South Korea-U.S. Summit, The Big Question Is Still North Korea : Parallels President Obama is hosting South Korea's president at the White House to reaffirm one of America's longest-running alliances in Asia. The long-vexing question on the agenda: North Korea.

For South Korea-U.S. Summit, The Big Question Is Still North Korea

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tomorrow, President Obama is hosting South Korea's president at the White House. The two will reaffirm one of America's longest-running alliances in Asia. NPR's Seoul correspondent Elise Hu reports there's also an issue on their agenda that's been a frustrating one for a while. That would be North Korea.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Generators power an elaborate tent camp at this U.S. Army base north of Seoul.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL CHRIS HYDE: Basically, this is nerve center. This is the operations center.

HU: Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hyde takes us through a war game.

HYDE: Exercise War Fighter is really about making sure the division is ready to go to battle.

HU: But the simulations aren't so far off from reality.

HYDE: We're in South Korea. We're looking at North Korea, and should North Korea devolve into some sort of chaos, if they decide to invade, if there's, you know - whatever the situation may be, War Fighter is supposed to make sure that the division can communicate with all its troops.

HU: Here at Camp Red Cloud, the U.S. Army and Republic of Korea soldiers work side-by-side.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ready, go.

HU: It's part of a Korea-U.S. alliance forged in the theatre of war 65 years ago, a war that technically never ended. As recently as August, tensions flared when landmines maimed two South Korean soldiers on the border. The South retaliated by blasting propaganda loudspeakers at the North. And North Korea showed its displeasure by readying its forces to fight.

MAJOR GENERAL TED MARTIN: This is the first place I've been where we have a laser beam-like focus on, you know, where we're most likely to be called to serve.

HU: That's Major General Ted Martin, the commanding general of the U.S.-Republic of Korea combined forces here.

MARTIN: This is ground zero for the alliance where ROK and U.S. combine at the user level - at the lowest tactical level, I would say, to, you know, really execute policy.

HU: The larger policy questions are on the agenda as South Korea's president, Park Geun-hye, meets with President Obama.

TONY BLINKEN: We're focused on this in real-time.

HU: Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken says denuclearization of North Korea is still the goal. But even in the face of international sanctions and warnings, the North doesn't seem to be deterred from its weapons development or testing - Blinken.

BLINKEN: The last time North Korea took a provocative action and tested, the United Nations Security Council not only took strong steps, but it said if there were future provocative actions, there would be significant measures taken as a result.

HU: The question now is, which measures? Tufts University's Lee Sung-Yoon suggests sanctions against individuals and sunlight.

LEE SUNG-YOON: Engage the North Korean people rather than the regime. That is, reach out to the North Korean people about the outside world, about freedom, about the conditions of life in that other Korean state, the one that is far more pleasant.

HU: North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, has worked to reinvigorate his nation's economy but not at the expense of the military, which got a huge show last weekend. Should the alliance have to engage that military, General Ted Martin says it won't be like units that were sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.

MARTIN: They had time to think about it. They had time to go home and make sure that they had their little plans for their families squared away. Here, should the unthinkable happen, that's it. We're in it.

HU: An alliance that's lasted for decades has gotten stronger partly because of an unruly neighbor to the north. Elise Hu, NPR News, Uijeongbu, South Korea.

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