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Obama expected to assure South Korea of US protection from the North

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak arrives in Washington today seeking a guarantee of American nuclear defense from possible North Korean aggression.

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"Ordinary South Koreans want a binding document on the US providing a nuclear umbrella," says Mr. Kim, reflecting concerns in Seoul that the US is not ready to defend the South while bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Talk of 'umbrella' prompts storm from North

A written US commitment to maintain a nuclear umbrella over the region will mark a clear escalation of the rhetoric that has flared up in recent weeks in statements from North and South Korea as well as the US.

The US has guaranteed South Korea's defense ever since the end of World War II when the Korean peninsula was divided between North and South. US troops defended the South in the Korean War after the North Korean invasion of June 1950 and the US still keeps 28,500 troops posted in the country.

South Korean officials have been shaken, however, by US insistence on fulfilling an agreement for transferring operational command of all forces in South Korea to a South Korean commander by 2012 in the event of war. They also have questioned why the US has decreased the number of US troops from the 37,000 stationed there several years ago – and more than 50,000 30 years ago.

The prospect of US affirmation of South Korea's nuclear defense by the US has already drawn an outraged response from North Korea. The Workers' Party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, in language laden with somewhat more vitriol than usual, called such a pledge "an unforgivable act" and warned that South Korea would become "a nuclear powder keg that can explode at any moment."

The newspaper, considered to be North Korea's most authoritative state organ, says the pledge would "drive the peninsula into a US nuclear battlefield by drawing more US nuclear weapons into South Korea."

US officials say they removed their nuclear warheads from South Korea around 1990, before South and North Korea signed an agreement for a "nuclear-free" Korean peninsula. But North Korean rhetoric on the topic is assumed to refer to US nuclear strength in the western Pacific, including warheads on Navy vessels that enter South Korean waters during military exercises, as well as US bases in Japan, Guam, and Hawaii.

Trade on agenda

Although the North Korean issue will dominate the Obama-Lee summit, they also are expected to discuss the Korean-US free-trade agreement, reached two years ago after lengthy negotiations. Obama and Clinton, while senators, both criticized the agreement for failing to guarantee a sharp increase in motor vehicle exports to South Korea while assuring ever more imports of South Korean vehicles into the US.

The agreement is expected to win approval by South Korea's National Assembly but faces tough going in the US Congress.