- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2009

SEOUL | President Obama said Thursday that he wouldn’t be distracted in his dealings with North Korea and will send a special envoy to the Asian nation next month to continue talks on ending its nuclear ambitions in exchange for massive aid.

Speaking at a joint news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the president also said discussions are under way with U.S. allies about the consequences of Iran’s lack of response to the nuclear deal offered to them.

Mr. Obama arrived here for the final stop of his eight-day mission to Asia on Wednesday after taking a brief detour from his grueling diplomatic schedule to make a steep climb up a snow-dusted hillside to see the Great Wall of China.

“It’s majestic,” the president said as he descended from the Chinese landmark. “It reminds you of the sweep of history. And that our time here on Earth is not that long. So we’d better make the best of it.”

Mr. Obama drove immediately from the remote Badaling section of the wall to the airport and headed here for the final stop on his four-nation tour. In South Korea, Mr. Obama planned a lengthy meeting with Mr. Lee during which White House officials said they would focus on global economic concerns, and their desire to strengthen a critical security alliance.

Seoul has made several overtures in recent weeks aimed at kindling good will with the Obama administration. Mr. Lee last month announced that South Korea would deploy more than 200 soldiers and about 20 police officers early next year to expand his country’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan, and last week he made a voluntary commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, which he said would help “urge the international community to make responsible efforts.”

The White House said that in addition to discussing Afghanistan with Mr. Lee, Mr. Obama plans to strategize on how best to restart talks involving six countries over efforts to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.

But the president’s visit to Seoul, as with his stops in Tokyo, Singapore and Beijing, will be saddled with some friction, in this case, over U.S. refusal to ratify a free-trade agreement with South Korea.

Douglas H. Paal, an Asia specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said South Koreans are feeling a strong sense that the U.S. has been “under-involved” in Asia, and that has been reflected in a trade agreement that has languished for more than two years over opposition from U.S. labor leaders.

“There’s some frustration,” Mr. Paal said.

Mr. Obama said he is committed to resolving issues that have hindered the free-trade agreement between the United States and South Korea and that expanding trade would be beneficial to both nations.

U.S. labor leaders said they opposed the loosening of trade restrictions because they feared it would exacerbate a massive U.S. trade deficit with South Korea in automobile and other manufacturing production. In 2007, the United States ran a $12.8 billion trade deficit with South Korea, of which $10.3 billion was concentrated in the auto and auto-parts sector. Last year, South Korean auto companies sold nearly 700,000 vehicles in the U.S. In the same year, U.S. exports to South Korea amounted to a mere 6,500 vehicles.

“We strongly oppose the Korea free-trade agreement as negotiated,” said Thea Lee, a top policy official with the AFL-CIO. “We would want to see the auto provisions renegotiated, at a minimum.”

There was one very strong signal that the president’s visit would do little to resolve the sticking points on trade: U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, who had traveled with the president for the first week of his Asia trip, decided to skip this stop. He headed to Washington directly from Beijing.

The limited prospects for producing what foreign-policy hands call “deliverables” - major steps forward on key policy issues - have left some to question whether the president made good use of the eight days he invested in the Asia tour. In Japan, the president departed without resolving a tense disagreement over the heavy U.S. military presence there, and in China, the president had a stiff engagement with President Hu Jintao that delivered little of substance.

Apparently aware of these concerns, the White House released a statement just before the president departed from China declaring that the visit had “strengthened possibilities for future cooperation” and announced an agreement to hold another summit, in the United States in 2010.

Before he departed, though, Mr. Obama did have the chance to dash through the grand courtyards of the Forbidden City, and visit the Great Wall.

Mr. Obama spent about a half-hour touring the Badaling section of the wall, accompanied by a large contingent of Chinese guides, Secret Service and White House aides. He was greeted with a bracing cold, fierce wind as he climbed up a sloping path, disappeared into a guard post, reappeared and kept going.

The press was kept at a good distance during the visit, and didn’t see the president again until about a half-hour later, as the presidential party began its descent and reached the final guard post before the exit.

At that point, the president emerged from a stone guard post alone, hands in pockets, and peered over the side of the wall.

A reporter asked him about the trip.

“I had a wonderful visit, thank you very much.”

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