U.S. President, Barack Obama visited Korea for the first time since taking office, for two days from November 18 to 19 during his visit to four Asian countries - Japan, Singapore, China and Korea. His visit to Asia was expected to become a key test of his foreign policy towards Asia. Obama is facing growing calls from Korea to push the Korea-U.S. FTA (KORUS FTA) signed in 2007.
Obama’s Air Force One landed at Osan Airbase, a U.S. Airbase located on the outskirts of Seoul, instead of Seoul Airport which serves as the official gateway for foreign dignitaries when they arrive and depart from Korea. Some expressed their disappointment that it was unusual that Obama chose not to use Seoul Airport. He was accompanied by an entourage of 200 staff, including Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian, and Pacific Affairs and Jeffrey Bader, senior director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council. Obama’s first visit to Korea started with a ceremony with the theme “Heart to Heart,” reflecting two countries’ desire for open communication regarding several critical yet sensitive issues.
During his 21 hours in Korea, Obama held a summit talk and a luncheon with the President of Korea, Lee Myung-bak, lasting over two and a half hours. “An actual openhearted summit talk was accomplished,” said Lee Dong-kwon, President Lee’s Chief Press Secretary. Kurt Campbell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs said, “I have attended numerous summits, but I have never seen a summit that was so forthright like today’s. It was very impressive.” Before the summit, Obama said to Kim Jong-hoon, Korea’s Trade Minister, “We have a lot of work to do.” regarding the KORUS FTA issue, an issue on which a good amount of time was spent during the summit.
The two leaders urged North Korea to change, promising the North major economic aid in return. The so called “grand bargain” offers the North massive economic assistance, but only if the North gets rid of its nuclear weapons in a verifiable way. They said they were seeking to break the pattern of the past in which the North would raise tensions, agree to talks and then back off without making any progresses. Obama emphasized that the North will secure its safety, improve the quality of life for its people, and open the path to a new future by accepting the proposal. North Korea pulled out of the six-party forum, made up of the two Koreas, China, the U.S. Russia and Japan last April.
However, in October it announced that it would be willing to return to the six party negotiations only if it could directly negotiate with the U.S. first. Obama plans to send his nuclear envoy, Stephen Bosworth, to North Korea on December 8.
The two leaders also discussed trade tensions between the two countries and agreed to make progress on the KORUS FTA which has still not been ratified. If it is ratified, the KORUS FTA would be the largest free trade deal in Korea’s history and the second largest for the U.S., following the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Obama returned to the U.S., putting an end to his week long journey in Asia, after giving a 15 minute speech to 1,000 U.S. troops at the Osan Air Base, receiving enormous applause. However, his first trip to Asia left some puzzled, causing them to wonder what the outcome of his lengthy trip was. In Korea, some referred to the Presidential summit as an unreciprocated loss. Korea recently announced that it plans to send 300 special forces troops to Afghanistan to protect the country’s civilian reconstruction team there, a move many Koreans consider to be Korea’s present to the U.S. before Obama’s visit. Despite this present, Korea did not make any palpable accomplishments regarding the KORUS FTA and North Korea issues.