SEOUL — President Obama met today with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, calling for North Korea to take "serious steps" to give up its nuclear weapons and committing himself to reviving a free-trade deal between Seoul and Washington that has stalled in the U.S. Congress.
In a nationally televised joint news conference, Lee said the two presidents agreed to offer North Korea a "grand bargain" designed to provide the North with security guarantees and economic assistance in exchange for dismantling its core nuclear programs.
The last stop on Obama's weeklong Asia tour was expected to be a bit of a diplomatic breather after the sticky foreign policy issues the U.S. president faced during stops in Japan and China.
On the eve of Obama's visit, during which he planned to meet with U.S. troops stationed here, South Korea announced the expansion of its presence in Afghanistan, saying it will send more troops and contractors to aid the U.S. effort there.
Standing on red-carpeted steps at Seoul's Blue House before colorful military regiments and waving children, Obama called the welcome the most spectacular ceremony he's enjoyed so far in Asia.
Lee presented his counterpart, who has studied the Korean self-defense art taekwondo, with a uniform and black belt in the discipline.
Still, serious issues loomed, most critically the efforts to bring North Korea back to the so-called six-party talks.
Obama also reiterated his plan to hold direct talks with North Korea. U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth is scheduled to visit Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, next month in an effort to restart the multilateral talks involving the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.
Analysts in South Korea described comments made by both countries on the looming threat of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's growing nuclear arsenal as "well couched."
"They could not show their cards before the American envoy's visit to Pyongyang," said Chang Yong-seok, research director at the Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul.
North Korea conducted a nuclear test in May and later abrogated the 1953 cease-fire agreement that ended the Korean War.
On another matter, Obama expressed impatience with Iran during the news conference, saying that he and U.S. allies are developing a package of sanctions that would be leveled against the country if it failed to accept a proposal curbing its nuclear program.
He was asked about a report that Iran has spurned the offer to relinquish its nuclear ambitions in return for assistance in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
"Iran has taken weeks now and has not shown a willingness to say yes," Obama said. "I've not seen the report, but we've seen indications that whether it's for internal political reasons or they're stuck in their own rhetoric, they have been unable to get to yes."
After the news conference, one of his top advisors, David Axelrod, rejected arguments that Obama has proved too accommodating -- particularly in dealings with China -- and failed to gain concessions on economic issues.
"We're laying the foundation for progress. Whether it's climate change, security issues, economic issues, the discussions that we had on this trip advanced our goals," Axelrod said.
Obama's visit came barely a week after a naval skirmish heightened tensions between North and South -- highlighting the conservative Lee's aggressive stance on North Korea.
Obama said American and South Korean officials were working to overcome obstacles that remained in the way of a free-trade pact.
In his major speech in Asia, delivered last weekend in Tokyo, Obama had pledged to "move forward" on a free-trade pact with Seoul.
But in a private meeting, Obama told the South Korean trade minister that "we have a lot of work to do," according to the semiofficial Yonhap news agency.
The main sticking point has been autos. South Korea is a major exporter of cars to the U.S., but very few vehicles made in America are sold in South Korea, an imbalance that many analysts say is largely market driven and not a result of trade barriers.
Nonetheless, pressed by organized labor, key members of Congress in states such as Michigan and Ohio have blocked the trade agreement, insisting that additional measures and safeguards be put in place to boost American car shipments to South Korea.
During the news conference, Lee told Obama, "If the car [issue] is a problem, we are ready to talk again."
Times staff writer Don Lee in Washington and special correspondent Ju-min Park in Seoul contributed to this report.