North Korea is among topics of discussion as Obama wraps up Asia tour in Seoul

President Obama wrapped up his tour of Asian countries, which included stops in Japan, Singapore, China and South Korea. He addressed security and environmental policy, the economy and U.S.-Asia relations.
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 20, 2009

SEOUL -- With none of the tension presented by a rising China and a willful Japan, President Obama's visit to South Korea on Thursday was short, congenial in substance and splendid in form.

Ending a sometimes bumpy week-long tour of East Asia, Obama said the welcoming ceremony in Seoul -- 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.

The two agreed on a common approach to North Korea, with Obama announcing that his special envoy, Stephen W. Bosworth, will travel to Pyongyang on Dec. 8 to try to persuade Kim Jong Il's government 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 here.

At a brief joint news 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. He responded that the United States has started to develop "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 those might take.

Obama said he has not given up hope that Iran might cooperate. "I continue to hold out the prospect that they may decide to walk through this door," he said.

He also said that he and Lee have agreed that their countries should no longer engage nuclear-armed North Korea in endless, inconclusive disarmament negotiations.

"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," he said.

As Obama departed South Korea on Thursday afternoon, one of his senior advisers, David Axelrod, was asked about the success of the East Asia trip, during which Obama met with resistance on some issues in Japan and China.

"We've clarified understanding on security issues, and obviously on economics," Axelrod said. "But nobody came expecting that all of these things would be resolved on this trip."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company