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Times Seoul bureau chief John M. Glionna explains what awaits President Obama today in South Korea

President Obama is on the last leg of his Asian trip.

November 18, 2009|By John M. Glionna

Reporting from Seoul — There were protests greeting President Obama's arrival in Seoul last night. Who was protesting, and why?

As opposed to the violent protests when George W. Bush visited Seoul in 2008, the rallies were staged quietly yesterday. Left-wing groups protested the re-dispatch of South Korean troops to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, right-wing organizations and North Korean human rights activists called for Obama to take swift action against the totalitarian regime in North Korea.

The U.S. and South Korea concluded a free-trade agreement in 2007, but it has yet to be ratified by Congress. Is any movement on the issue likely during this trip?

The Koreans would like to see Obama kick-start the ratification process, but the president is more likely to avoid dramatic moves because of hostility to parts of the deal from his own party. The agreement has been stalled in Congress for two years, primarily over concerns about the auto sector. South Korea exports far more vehicles to the U.S. than it imports from America. Meanwhile, South Korea has pressed ahead with other bilateral trade agreements with India and the European Union, raising the specter of U.S. businesses falling behind the competition in Asia.

Why were North and South Korean navies shooting at each other last week?

Despite closer economic ties, relations between the two Koreas remain tense. The issue of territorial waters is one sore point, and on Nov. 10 it led to a naval clash. That has complicated the nascent attempts at arranging another North-South summit.

Do South Korea and the U.S. see eye to eye on what to do about North Korea's nuclear ambitions?

Both the U.S. and South Korea want North Korea to come back to the six-party talks on nuclear disarmament, and Obama is expected to discuss an evolving strategy with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. The administration has shown an openness to meeting North Korea's call for direct talks with Washington, and China has also urged the U.S. to undertake them. The result is that Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy and a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, may travel to Pyongyang for talks this year, although Chinese leverage over North Korea is still seen as essential to any deal.

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