There was no doubt about it. President Barack Obama got by far the loudest cheers of his six-day East Asian odyssey Thursday in a rousing 15-minute talk before about 1,000 troops.
At Osan Air Base here, troops from all services repeatedly interrupted with applause as the president spoke in words that applied immediately to concerns over North Korea's nuclear program. His remarks also had implications for his get-tough policy toward Iran as enunciated hours earlier in Seoul after his summit with South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak.
"We've seen indications that for internal political reasons or perhaps because they are stuck in some of their own rhetoric, they are unable to get to 'yes.' As a consequence, we have begun discussion with our international partners" about sanctions, Mr. Obama said.
On the final day of a tour that took him to Japan, Singapore, China, and South Korea, Obama could be sure in these friendly surroundings of real agreement on America's role as a military superpower on fronts extending from northeast Asia to the Middle East. First with President Lee, and then at this major air base, the headquarters of the 7th US Air Force 30 miles south of Seoul, he could speak in the unabashed language of a leader of battle-ready troops.
US envoy to North Korea
But Obama also found equally common cause with Lee on getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. So doing, he was able to announce that the US envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, would go to Pyongyang on Dec. 8 to try to draw North Korea back into the six-party talks that were last held in Beijing nearly one year ago.
Implicit in Mr. Bosworth's mission was the sense that North Korea might well agree to return to multilateral dialogue if promised two-way talks on the sidelines. US diplomats, in numerous visits here, apparently have convinced South Korean leaders that Bosworth will not negotiate on North Korea's demands, ranging from massive aid to diplomatic relations with the US, until the North has returned to the six-party process.
In return, Obama appeared to have won a measure of understanding from Lee on the delicate issue of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, negotiated before either of them became presidents of their countries but still in need of ratification by Congress.
Lee, standing beside Obama in a joint press conference after their summit in the Blue House, the center of presidential power here, expressed his willingness to talk over differences on the issue of South Korea's burgeoning motor vehicle exports.
He made no promises, but that remark was clearly an attempt to mollify the strong opposition of US motor-vehicle manufacturers to an agreement that they believe will open the floodgates to ever more Korean vehicles on the American market.
"We can talk, and I think we can talk again," said Lee, softening the tone of adamant opposition expressed by South Korean officials to reopening negotiations on a deal they regard as done.
North Korea looms large
That said, differences over the free trade agreement appeared relatively minor compared with the greater need to act in unison on North Korea. The tone of the visit contrasted with the rancor that bubbled at or near the surface for the 10 years before Lee took office in February of last year. Lee's two predecessors focused on reconciliation with North Korea while North Korea went on developing – and testing – nuclear devices.
No doubt at the urging of Lee's political organization, the conservative Grand National Party, several thousand people lined the route of Obama's motorcade to the Blue House where thousands had poured out daily for months last year to protest the opening of Korean markets to US beef. American officials and politicians from western states made clear that the beef market had to open up despite fears of "mad cow" disease if the free trade agreement was to have any chance at all.
None cheered louder, though, than the troops gathered here, representative of the 28,500 US troops in Korea.
"America's commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea has never been stronger," Obama told them, and "our alliance will never waver."
The troops cheered loudest, though, at his promise of more pay and benefits.
From "how he interacted" with the troops, said Marine Lance Cpl. James Itle, "he seemed like he would keep his word."