North Korea marked President Obama's final trip to Asia with some missile firings — at least that's how the timing worked out. And that is one of the subjects the president addressed today as he finished attending a Southeast Asian summit, which took place in Laos. NPR's Elise Hu was there.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.
INSKEEP: What did the president say?
HU: Well, this is his final trip to Asia as president, so a lot of looking back on Obama administration policy in Asia and, notably, the rebalance that the administration talks a lot about. But I had a chance to ask the president about North Korea policy in particular, since the North continues to improve its nuclear capability in spite of years and years of toughening sanctions. The president acknowledged that U.S. policy with regard to North Korea, hasn't achieved the desired outcome.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will continue to put some of the toughest pressure that North Korea has ever been under as a consequence of this behavior. Can I guarantee that it works? No. But it is the best options that we have available to us right now. And we will continue to explore, with all parties involved, including China, other potential means by which we can bring about a change in behavior.
HU: The president also noted that in his conversations with President Xi Jinping of China this week at the G20 summit, he did focus on ways to increase Chinese cooperation on sanctions since China is key here. Some 90 percent of North Korea's trade is with China, so it's a huge factor.
INSKEEP: And of course, that's the key for the United States, to be on the same page with China when confronting North Korea. Is it your sense, living in the region, Elise, that the two countries are on the same page there?
HU: Well, there is some space, especially when it comes to these economic sanctions, notably on coal. Now, if the sanctions on coal that comes out of North Korea were actually enforced, that that would affect actually 30 percent of North Korea's GDP. But there's no evidence that anything is changing in terms of Chinese and North Korean trade on coal. And so, you know, I pointed this out in asking a question to the president this morning. And this is acknowledged that it is an area that sort of needs improvement.
INSKEEP: OK. Well, let's talk about something else where they felt some improvement was needed and that is a meeting with the president of the Philippines. We've talked about this on the program. Rodrigo Duterte used — well, let's just say a vulgarity — something we're not going to repeat precisely here on the program, referring to the president, warning him not to ask Duterte about an anti-drug campaign that's led to many, many deaths. The president decided not to meet with Duterte at all. But then what happened?
HU: Well, the two leaders were at the same summit. So both President Obama and President Duterte were able to exchange some pleasantries in person in a holding room before dinner yesterday. It was brief and not substantive, but the Philippines is spinning this as evidence that the relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines remains strong. And the president, for his part, really played down any diplomatic rift. President Obama said that he doesn't take these things personally and that it seemed like the slur that Duterte used is actually a phrase that he uses a lot and has even used against Pope Francis.
HU: So no harm there to the relationship (laughter), at least in the president's mind.
INSKEEP: Nothing against you, Mr. President, I call everybody that. That's very nice. I like that. Well, Elise, thanks very much.
HU: You bet.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Elise Hu. She is with President Obama, who is wrapping up a summit of
southeast Asian nations in Laos.