Obama tackles North Korea, sexual assault in military at joint news conference

Rachel Rose Hartman
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At a joint White House news conference with visiting South Korean President Park Geun-hye, President Barack Obama discussed issues ranging from sexual assault in the U.S. military to North Korea's security threats.

Tuesday's press conference followed a private lunch and meeting with the president, Vice President Joe Biden and Park, South Korea's first female president. The visit occurs as the U.S. and South Korea mark their 60-year alliance.

Asked by a reporter about a new Department of Defense report noting a sexual assault epidemic in the military—as well as the recent arrest of the Air Force's head of sexual assault prevention—Obama issued a harsh condemnation.

"I have no tolerance for this. ... If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they're going to be held accountable—prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It's not acceptable," Obama said.

The president conceded that sexual assault in the military "is not a new phenomenon" and that the military has been promoting ways to allow for more accurate reporting of incidents. But, Obama said, he communicated to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel Tuesday morning the need to "exponentially step up our game."

"We have to do everything we can to root this out," he said, and noted that those affected should understand he's "got their backs."

Several scandals involving sexual assault within the military have recently made headlines, including Monday's news that Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, head of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, was arrested over the weekend for allegedly groping a woman in a parking lot.

Of course, much of the press conference was directed toward the U.S.'s relationship with South Korea, with topics including economic issues, trade and North Korea.

Obama noted that North Korea cannot hope to gain power with provocation. (North Korea has threatened nuclear missile strikes against the United States and South Korea—but appeared to back down from an imminent launch this week.) "The days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions, those days are over," the president said.

He added that South Korea and the U.S. will maintain "a strong deterrent capability—that we’re not going to reward provocative behavior."

Park called on the international community to unite to place North Korea in a position where it has no other choice but to change its strategy and pursue a peaceful path toward denuclearization, according to the translation provided at the White House.

Obama said the international community would welcome a decision by North Korea to change its behavior, but wants to see proof. "We have an expression in English: 'Don't worry about what I say, watch what I do.' And so far, at least, we haven't seen actions on the part of the North Koreans that would indicate they are prepared to move in a different direction."

North Korea last week also sentenced American citizen Kenneth Bae to 15 years hard labor for unspecified crimes against the state. North Korea has in the past jailed Americans to potentially gain leverage in diplomatic discussions.

Park will travel to Capitol Hill Wednesday to address a joint meeting of Congress.