- 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.

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