By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 19, 2009 2:49 PM
Ending a sometimes bumpy week-long tour of East Asia, Obama said the welcoming ceremony here -- a glorious, sun-drenched mingling of music, flags and traditional garb -- was the "most spectacular" he has seen in his travels.
In his talks with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, whose right-of-center government has embraced political cooperation with the United States, Obama also found much to his liking.
They agreed on a common approach to dealing with North Korea, with Obama announcing that his special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, would travel to Pyongyang on Dec. 8 to try to persuade the government of Kim Jong Il to return to stalled six-party disarmament talks in Beijing.
And they played down lingering differences over the U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement, which has not been ratified in either country, primarily because of American objections to South Korean rules that limit U.S. car sales.
At a brief joint press conference, Obama was asked about Iran's indication that it would not ship some of its uranium to Russia for processing, which was to have been the core of an international solution to its nuclear ambitions.
Obama said the United States has started developing "a package of potential steps" to penalize Iran.
"They have been unable to get to 'yes,' " Obama said. "And so as a consequence, we have begun discussions with our international partners about the importance of having consequences." He did not specify what form they might take.
Obama said he has not given up hope that Iran might yet cooperate.
"I continue to hold out the prospect that they may decide to walk through this door," he said.
During the press conference with Lee, Obama said he and the South Korean leader have agreed that their countries should no longer engage nuclear-armed North Korea in endless, inconclusive disarmament negotiations.
"The thing I want to emphasize is that President Lee and I both agreed on the need to break the pattern that has existed in the past, in which North Korea behaves in a provocative fashion and then returns to talks for a while and then leaves the talks seeking further concessions," Obama said.
To that end, Lee said Obama supports his idea of a "grand bargain" with North Korea, which would replace step-by-step negotiations with a comprehensive deal, one that would offer Kim Jong Il's government massive economic assistance, but only if the North gets rid of its nuclear weapons in a way that can be verified.
"We two leaders completely agreed on the need to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue in one single step as I proposed under a grand bargain, and agreed to discuss how to pursue that goal in close consultations," Lee said.
That grand bargain, however, has generated considerable skepticism among North Korean analysts.
North Korea has repeatedly said this year it has no intention of abandoning nuclear weapons, which the isolated state views as a key deterrent to invasion and which make it a player on the international stage. Pyongyang sent a letter this fall to the U.N. Security Council, saying that dismantling its nuclear weapons is "unthinkable even in a dream."
Lee proposed his grand bargain several months ago, but he said Thursday that "the North Koreans have not yet conveyed what they think" of it.
On the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement, which has been stalled for more than two years, Obama said he was committed to making it work, noting that the U.S. trade imbalance with South Korea was relatively small.
"There has been a tendency I think to lump all of Asia together when Congress looks at trade agreements and says it appears as if this is a one-way street," Obama said. "We have to look at each agreement and each country on its own merits and make sure that we can create the kind of win-win situation that I know President Lee is interested in seeing."
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.
U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has praised the economic opportunities the free trade deal could open up, but he has also said that if concerns over access for U.S. cars in the South Korean market are not resolved, Washington may walk away from the deal. The bulk of the U.S. trade deficit with South Korea is in autos.
Earlier stops in Obama's tour of East Asia have raised questions about the overall success of the trip.
Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama failed to resolve their difference over the location of a U.S. Marine air station on Okinawa, which has become a symbol of the large and often-resented U.S. military footprint in that country.
In China, Obama was criticized for not speaking out more forcefully on human rights and for allowing his visit to be stage-managed by the Chinese government.
As Obama departed South Korea on Thursday afternoon, one of his senior advisers, David M. Axelrod, was asked about the success of the East Asia trip.
"This is not an immediate gratification business," Axelrod said. "We've clarified understanding on security issues, and obviously on economics. Important points were made. But nobody came expecting that all of these things would be resolved on this trip."
Before he boarded Air Force One, a question was shouted to Obama as he walked on the tarmac at Osan Air Base: "How was the trip?"
"It was great," Obama said. "We got a lot of work done."