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Obama in Korea: warmer welcome than in China, Japan?

Obama is expected to receive a warm welcome in South Korea, where top issues on agenda are North Korea talks and a free trade agreement.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / November 18, 2009

President Barack Obama takes part in a welcoming ceremony upon arriving in Seoul, Wednesday.

Jim Young/Reuters

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Seoul, South Korea

President Barack Obama can expect the warmest reception of his swing through East Asia Thursday morning when he meets South Korea's conservative President Lee Myung-bak – a welcome contrast to tense summits in China and Japan as well as talks with other Asian leaders at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Singapore.

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Fresh from difficult sessions with China's President Hu Jintao, Mr. Obama flew into Osan Air Force base south of Seoul on Wednesday evening eager to face the leader of a conservative government fully committed to getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program and strengthening the US-Korean alliance.

The sense here is that relations between Washington and Seoul have vastly improved since disagreements on North Korea and differences with Mr. Lee's presidential predecessors, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung, both of whom flew to Pyongyang for summits with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il.

A South Korean honor guard, dressed in colorful uniforms dating from Korea's ancient dynastic history, greeted Obama as he stepped off Air Force One on a freezing night. Members of the honor guard, armed with bows and arrows on an airstrip used by the latest US fighter planes, bowed low while Obama shook hands with Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan; the top US commander in South Korea, Gen. Walter Sharp; the US ambassador to Korea, Kathleen Stephens; and other senior officials.

He then boarded a helicopter for the brief flight to Seoul, where he and Mr. Lee are to urge North Korea to return to six-party talks and abandon its nuclear program.

Close alignment on approach to North

Obama and Lee are likely to strongly reaffirm the close alignment between Washington's plea for a "comprehensive package" and Lee's call for a "grand bargain," in which North Korea does away with its entire nuclear weapons program.

"The general US approach is very similar to the grand bargain that President Lee is talking about," says David Stroub, a former US diplomat here. Mr. Stroub believes the US, like South Korea, has wearied of the "salami tactics" of trying to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program by stages, only to see the North fail to live up to its side of agreements signed at six-party talks hosted by China in 2005 and 2007.