Park, Obama will delay transfer of wartime control

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Park, Obama will delay transfer of wartime control

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U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Korean President Park Geun-hye pause for a moment of silence for the victims of the April 16 ferry disaster yesterday at the Blue House. [Joint Press Corps]

President Park Geun-hye and U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday decided during a summit in Seoul to consider postponing once again Korea’s takeover of wartime operational control of Korean forces, which is currently scheduled for 2015.

The two leaders, meeting for the third time, also reaffirmed the long-standing South Korea-U.S. alliance in the face of escalating security threats posed by North Korea as the regime appeared ready to conduct a fourth nuclear test.

“Both Korea and the United States have decided to re-examine the schedule for the U.S. to transfer the wartime control currently set for 2015 due to the persistent North Korean nuclear and missile threats and ever-changing security environment,” said a joint fact sheet released by the Blue House after the summit.

The United States was originally to transfer wartime operational control in 2012 but pushed it back to 2015 at the request of the Lee Myung-bak administration in June 2010. The defense authorities of Korea and the United States began talks last year to extend the deadline for the transferring of wartime control as new security challenges posed by North Korea, including a series of nuclear tests, recently emerged.

This was the first time that the U.S. president had officially mentioned the potential of again extending the deadline. The two countries will finalize the schedule at the 46th Korea-United States Security Consultative Meeting in October.

Stressing that the United States is on the same page with Seoul when it comes to dealing with North Korea’s provocations, Obama said North Korea will get “nothing except further isolation” from the global community. He noted the nuclear weapons North Korea is developing not only pose a direct threat to Korea and Japan, two very close U.S. allies in the region, but to the United States as well.

He brought up China’s role to say that Beijing, which currently has the biggest influence on the Communist regime, is beginning to recognize that North Korea is a nuisance. Park also emphasized China’s significance in containing Pyongyang during the press conference.

Obama avoided a direct response to a question by a Korean reporter about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December and his view of history.

But Obama said Japan’s mobilization of Korean “comfort women,” or sex slaves during World War II, was a “terrible and egregious violation of human rights” and that Abe and his people should “recognize that the past is something that has to be recognized honestly and fairly.”

At the beginning of the summit with Park in the presence of 20 key officials from both countries, Obama expressed sympathies for the victims of the sinking of the Sewol on behalf of Americans by proposing a moment of silence. President Park said she was sure Koreans would overcome the crisis as Americans did after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Obama also brought with him two presents as a symbol of friendship. One was an American flag that was hung at the White House on April 16, the day of the Sewol capsizing, and the other were seedlings of the Andrew Jackson magnolia at the White House to be given to Danwon High School in Ansan, which lost hundreds of its students in the accident. The tree, whose sprout was brought by the former U.S. president to the White House in the mid-1800s, has been admired by every U.S. president ever since.

The tree “symbolizes the deep sympathy that the American people have for the families and loved ones of those who perished in this tragedy,” a note Obama sent to Park read.

Speculation circulated a day earlier the U.S. president was preparing a surprise visit either to Jindo, South Jeolla, near where the ship capsized, or to the joint mourning altar temporarily set up in Ansan, Gyeonggi. Danwon High School is located in the city. The plan was dropped at the last minute due to Obama’s tight schedule and the security that would have been required, according to the Blue House.

Although the two leaders did not tackle in detail Korea joining the 12-nation trade pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is led by the United States, there has been “significant” progress in the discussion, according to Cho Won-dong, senior presidential secretary for the economy, in a briefing. The TPP would be one of the world’s biggest trade agreements, and it aims to cut tariffs and set common standards on other trade issues across countries that represent 39 percent of the global economy. It is a central element of Obama’s strategic “pivot” toward Asia.

Korea has expressed interest, but it has not officially announced it would participate in the pact. “The U.S. has expressed hope that Korea would join the trade talks as soon as possible,” said Cho. The U.S. and Japanese governments said in a statement after Obama departed for Seoul yesterday that they were marking a “key milestone” in their TPP talks, although the leaders of the two countries failed to strike an outline of a bilateral accord during Obama’s three-day stay in Tokyo. “There is still much work to be done,” the statement said.

Korea and the United States have straightened out rules of origin to determine whether products may quality for a reduced tariff two years after the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement went into effect. “Both Korea and the U.S. have sent an excessively large amount of documents to each other that are required to verify the products’ origin,” Cho said.

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

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