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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.

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"Officials in the Obama administration believe a step-by-step approach is not politically supported in the US," says Stroub, who headed both the Korea and Japan desks during a 30-year career with the State Department. In the wake of North Korea 's second nuclear test in May, he says, "Americans see no benefit to giving help to prop up an immoral regime."

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US officials have repeatedly told South Koreans that when the US envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, goes to Pyongyang after Obama's visit here, he will confine his talks to getting North Korea to return to six-party talks, last held nearly a year ago.

For others to discuss the North Korean nuclear program without South Korean participation "will arouse suspicions for South Koreans," warns Yoon Young-kwan, a Seoul National University professor and former foreign minister. "It is important to develop a multilateral relationship including [South] Korea ."

Former Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo says US-Korean relations by now are considerably better than US-Japan relations in view of the objections raised by the new government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama to US bases on Okinawa.

"In the past, it was the Korean alliance they worried about," says Mr. Han. "Now the alliance with Korea has more value than ever before."

Potential turmoil on free trade

If Obama and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak see eye to eye on North Korea, however, they will have to get around potentially contentious differences on a Korea-US free trade agreement worked out in 16 months of complex negotiations, before either of them was elected as president.

Lee is sure to try to persuade Obama to try to win US congressional approval of the FTA as it now stands, while Obama is just as sure to express some of the reservations that he gave while campaigning for president. Obama reflected the grave doubts of beleaguered US motor vehicle manufacturers and their strongly unionized work force about a rising tide of imports from Korean competitors.

But "the FTA is probably more important to the US than to South Korea," Han says. "South Korea will mean a bridgehead in Asia when China is expanding its influence." Obama, he says, "has to understand how dangerous it is not to have the FTA ratified."

Victor Cha, who served as director for Asian affairs for the National Security Council under George W. Bush, sees ratification of the Korea-US free trade agreement as "the next big upgrade in this alliance." Mr. Cha, now a professor at Georgetown , says it's "important for the US to be very clear about its support for free trade" and urges ratification "based on broader strategic arguments and not domestic politics."

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