Obama promises united front with South Korea over North’s planned launch

At a G-20 sideline meeting, he affirms the alliance and avoids discussing controversial trade deal.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama (left) and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak affirmed 'the staunchness of the Korea-US alliance' during a sideline meeting at the G-20 summit Thursday.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREAPresident Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung Bak appeared to follow well-crafted scripts in their first meeting Thursday as they emphasized “the staunchness of the Korea-US alliance” despite a months-old dispute over a controversial trade deal.

The show of solidarity reflected both countries’ desire to put up a united front on the more urgent issue facing them – North Korea’s declared plan to launch a rocket some time between Saturday and Wednesday.

Before breakfasting with the 18 other leaders at the G-20 session in London, Mr. Obama and Mr. Lee trod carefully on a free trade agreement (FTA) that negotiators worked out over 1 1/2 years but that neither countries’ legislatures have approved.

A summary of the main points of the 30-minute meeting, disseminated by the Blue House, the center of presidential power here, did not mention the controversial FTA at all, although a spokesman later said the topic had arisen in general terms.

“The two leaders did talk about the FTA,” says the spokesman, in response to a query. “They did agree FTA is important, and they will try for further progress on the FTA issue.”

Those diplomatic words mask well-known disagreements between top American and Korean leaders on a deal likely to vastly increase bilateral trade.

“Both countries would like to have the FTA,” says Park Nei Hei, dean of business at Sookmyung Woman’s University here, but the legislative bodies of the US and Korea “are still struggling.” He expects South Korea’s National Assembly to ratify it but is doubtful about FTA’s future in the US Congress. Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when they were senators last year, opposed the deal.

The presidents “would like to agree on FTA in principle,” says Mr. Park, a longtime adviser to the Boston Consulting Group, but he says he’s not surprised that the two presidents skirted the differences. Obama has said he fears the FTA will jeopardize the jobs of America’s hard-pressed motor vehicle workers by opening the door ever wider to Korean motor vehicle exports, while Lee has said he sees no reason for changes to the agreement.

Korean farmers, spurred on by antigovernment activists, are concerned about expanding US agricultural imports. Although the deal includes neither rice nor beef, farmers here have passionately opposed the FTA for fear it would lead to rice imports, and Korean activists battled US beef imports last year, claiming they might spread “mad cow” disease.

“They try to help each other on economic issues,” says Park, “but FTA will take time.”

On the sidelines of a gathering dedicated to resolving the world’s deepening economic problems, Obama and Lee had no problem agreeing in general terms on the need to work together “to formulate effective macroeconomic policies to surmount the global financial and economic crisis as soon as possible.”

And on North Korea’s plan to fire what the US and South Korea say is a long-range Taepodong-2 missile in the coming week, they appeared completely in tune.

“The two leaders have agreed to pursue complete and verifiable dismantlement of the North’s nuclear weapons program, based on close Korea-US coordination,” said the official statement on the meeting, agreed on by both the Blue House and the White House.

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