Washington confirms visit by Obama

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Washington confirms visit by Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama will hold talks with President Park Geun-hye in Seoul during his four-country Asia tour this April, the White House confirmed yesterday.

The Blue House responded to the announcement yesterday, saying that it “welcomed” the U.S. president’s visit and that it would be “a good opportunity for the two leaders to have in-depth discussions about .?.?. issues on the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia and beyond.”

Diplomatic sources indicate that Obama is expected to spend two days and one night in Seoul and Tokyo, respectively.

Obama was originally expected to make a three-day state visit to Japan. However, dividing his time between Seoul and Tokyo indicates Washington’s consideration of Korea’s position amid frosty relations between the two East Asian neighbors.

The White House said in a statement that Obama will travel to Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April “as part of his ongoing commitment to increase the United States’ diplomatic, economic and security engagements with countries in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The trip is also part of Obama’s pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region, and the announcement coincided with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s two-day visit to Seoul yesterday.

The White House said Obama will meet with Park “to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to a strong alliance, review recent developments in North Korea and our combined efforts to promote denuclearization” and discuss the implementation of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

In Tokyo, the United States said it plans to modernize its alliance with Japan, deepen economic ties - especially through the Trans-Pacific Partnership - and expand cooperation on “a range of diplomatic challenges in Asia and globally.”

Diplomatic challenges likely refer to Japan’s increased tensions with Beijing and Seoul over historical and territorial disputes.

Susan Rice, the U.S. national security adviser, said in a speech last November that a trip to Asia by the president was in the works for April, though she did not specify which countries he would tour.

Obama was scheduled to visit the Philippines and Malaysia and attend meetings in Indonesia and Brunei in October, though those plans were canceled because of the U.S. federal government shutdown.

He was widely expected to visit Malaysia and the Philippines because of the cancellation of a prior visit, in addition to Japan, accepting a standing invitation from Tokyo.

But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s controversial Dec. 26 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which pays tribute to the war dead and houses 14 Class-A war criminals, resulted in a backlash from Washington, Seoul and Beijing.

Officials here previously emphasized that an Asia tour including Tokyo but not Seoul would send the “wrong message,” especially given Korea’s current relations with Japan.

A visit to Korea had not originally been included in his trip to Asia. However, Seoul conveyed its concerns regarding the Japanese government’s extremist tendencies and its denial of its wartime history.

President Park extended an invitation to Obama during their summit last May in Washington.

“There are issues that we have always closely discussed,” Cho Tai-young, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told reporters yesterday regarding the agenda during Obama’s upcoming trip. The visit may include discussions on Pyongyang and “how to deter North Korea from its nuclear plans and convince it to become a responsible member of the international community.”

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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