Obama starts his fourth trip to Seoul

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Obama starts his fourth trip to Seoul

President Barack Obama will be keen to assure President Park Geun-hye of U.S. commitment to the alliance in the face of the North Korean nuclear threat during a meeting in Seoul today, according to the Blue House.

“President Obama’s trip to Seoul will be an opportunity [for both countries] to reconfirm the strongest-ever Korea-U.S. alliance - the linchpin for the peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region and global partnership,” said Ju Chul-ki, senior secretary to the president for foreign affairs and national security, in a briefing at the Blue House yesterday.

The U.S. president’s two-day visit to Korea after three days in Japan comes at a difficult time. The entire nation, including President Park, is mourning the hundreds of victims of the ferry that capsized off the waters of the southwest coast on April 16, and Pyongyang is showing signs of preparing its fourth nuclear test.

During a press briefing after a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that lasted around 90 minutes yesterday, Obama called on China to use its influence on the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang to help contain the nuclear threat.

On Wednesday, President Park phoned her Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to ask him to dissuade North Korea from such a move.

Analysts said there is a slim chance the North would conduct a test while Obama is in Seoul.

But the conversations between Park and Obama could make up Pyongyang’s mind, according to Chung Sung-jang, a senior researcher with a private think tank Sejong Institute.

“If Korea and the U.S. come up with an uncompromising stand on North Korea during the meeting, the North could suddenly turn hard-core and proceed with a nuclear test,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Yun Byung-se told lawmakers yesterday the Communist regime is “technically ready” to do a test at any time after it makes a “political decision.”

Upon arrival this afternoon, the U.S. president will pay a visit to the War Memorial of Korea in Yongsan, central Seoul, and to Gyeongbok Palace, also in central Seoul, according to various sources. He will then head to the Blue House for a welcome ceremony and a summit with President Park for about an hour. After delivering nine Korean court seals that were taken out of the country during the 1950-53 Korean War to Park, a joint press conference and an evening banquet will follow.

After a sleepover at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on Mount Namsan in central Seoul - a U.S. franchise hotel favored by visiting American presidents - Obama will have lunch with Korean business leaders, visit the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command in Yongsan and depart for Malaysia tomorrow.

The trip is Obama’s fourth to Seoul as president. Various sources said the White House is deliberating on ways for the president to best offer condolences for the victims of the ferry accident. The site of the accident off South Jeolla is too distant from Seoul to visit, but Obama may drop by the joint mourning altar temporarily set up at the Ansan Olympic Memorial Hall in Ansan, Gyeonggi.

He could do that right after landing at Osan Air Base today or before his departure tomorrow. But the security required to guard the president might make such a trip impossible to carry out.

Obama’s trip to four destinations in Asia - Japan, Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines - comes half a year after he had to cancel an Asian trip last fall because of the U.S. government shutdown.

BY SEO JI-EUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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