In Seoul, Obama will confront trade and security issues

By Blaine Harden
Wednesday, November 18, 2009; 10:00 AM

SEOUL -- President Obama, who arrived here Wednesday night on the final stop of his East Asia tour, will grapple with two long-standing U.S. concerns on the Korean Peninsula, one in the nuclear-armed North and the other here in the trade-dependent South.

In a meeting Thursday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, whom he has met twice before, Obama will discuss how to bring North Korea back to six-party nuclear disarmament talks in Beijing, as well as strategies to persuade the government of Kim Jong Il to give up nuclear weapons.

Chances of a breakthrough on those weapons seem remote, as North Korea has repeatedly said this year it has no intention of abandoning its small nuclear arsenal, which the isolated state views as a key deterrent to invasion and which make it a player on the international stage.

Obama and Lee are also expected to discuss ways of unfreezing the ratification process for a U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement that has the potential to generate tens of billions of dollars worth of business for both countries.

The deal, negotiated before either leader came to power, has been stalled since it was signed in 2007. South Korean anxiety about mad cow disease in U.S. beef imports caused months of riots in Seoul in 2008, while crippling Lee's presidency.

Although the mad-cow scare has died down, the principal holdup now is a U.S. government objection to South Korean rules that limit sales of American cars here.

If it is ever ratified by Congress and the legislature here, the agreement would be the largest free trade deal in South Korean history and the second-largest for the United States, after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The United States is South Korea's third-largest trading partner, and the South is the seventh-largest trading partner of the United States.

Obama said last week in Tokyo he will try to move forward on the free trade agreement, and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has praised the economic opportunities it could open up.

But Kirk has also said that if concerns over access for U.S. cars in the South Korean market are not resolved, Washington might walk away from the deal.

U.S. automakers sold fewer than 7,000 vehicles in South Korea last year, less than 1 percent of the market, according to Bloomberg. Korean carmakers Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Co. sold more than 53,000 vehicles just last month in the United States. The bulk of the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea is in autos.

As for North Korea, Lee is expected to brief Obama on his proposal for a "grand bargain," a comprehensive deal that would give Kim Jong Il's government massive economic assistance, but only if the North junks its nuclear program in a way that can be verified.

The grand bargain, however, has generated considerable skepticism in Seoul. Analysts note that North Korea recently sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council saying that dismantling its nuclear weapons is "unthinkable even in a dream."

The Obama administration has often said its goal is the complete and verifiable elimination of North Korea's nuclear weapons, but so far it has focused on small steps toward that goal, such as bringing the North back to disarmament talks with China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

North Korea abandoned those talks in the spring, after denouncing them as a platform for regime change in Pyongyang. But Kim Jong Il has recently suggested his government would return to the six-year-old talks, if the United States would first engage in bilateral talks.

To that end, the Obama administration has said it will soon send a special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to North Korea.

In China this week, Obama said that North Korea has a choice of continued isolation or of becoming "a full member of the international community, which will give a better life to its people."

North Korea, however, has shown little or no recent interest in the latter option. Instead, it has heightened its isolation this year by testing a nuclear device, launching missiles and cracking down on border crossings into China by its citizens. There are also reports of new restrictions on local markets, which have become an important source of food in a country that suffers from widespread malnutrition.

After making a disarmament deal in 2007 that won it food and fuel, North Korea began to disable parts of its nuclear program, even blowing up a cooling tower at its main plutonium factory.

But this year, it has moved to rebuild parts of that plant and says it soon will be able to making more nuclear weapons from enriched uranium.

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