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.

Jim Young/Reuters
President Barack Obama takes part in a welcoming ceremony upon arriving in Seoul, Wednesday.
Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
Participants hold signs at a candlelight rally near the Myongdong Cathedral in central Seoul, Wednesday.

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.

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.

"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."

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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