(LEE-CLINTON TALKS — President Lee Myung-bak shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before their talks at Cheong Wa Dae on Sunday. Yonhap News)
President Lee Myung-bak and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed Sunday to make best efforts to have a free trade pact between the two allies ratified at an early date and to work closely together in dealing with North Korea, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said.
The top American diplomat arrived in Seoul on Saturday amid Washington’s efforts to get Congress to approve the deal meant to free up trade between the two sides and China’s push to reopen the stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear programs.
The trade pact, first signed in 2007 and supplemented last December, has been stuck in the parliaments of both countries.
Seoul’s National Assembly is waiting for the U.S. Congress to approve it first to facilitate its ratification here, where the main opposition party opposes the pact citing possible impacts on the agricultural industry.
Lee told Clinton that the two countries should make joint efforts to get the agreement ratified at an early date, saying that more than three years of delay in its ratification is preventing the two countries from enjoying “enormous economic and security benefits” that it would bring about, Cheong Wa Dae said in a statement.
Clinton responded that the U.S. will make its best efforts for its ratification at an early date, reaffirming U.S. President Barack Obama’s strong commitment to the agreement, the Cheong Wa Dae statement said.
On Saturday, Clinton held talks with South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan and said that the two countries are in the “home stretch” of efforts to have the agreement win legislative approval. Clinton also said that she is “determined about the passage of the free trade agreement.”
In other topics, Lee told Clinton that the alliance between the two countries is being upgraded to a higher level through cooperation in resolving regional and global issues as well as coordinating policies on North Korea, the statement said.
“Sharing an understanding on this, Secretary Clinton said that the two countries are maintaining a stronger alliance on North Korean issues than at any other time and will continue to cooperate closely in these areas,” the statement said.
Clinton also hoped that Seoul and Washington will further strengthen cooperation to promote democracy and peace in the Middle East, saying the matter is directly related to world peace, the presidential office said in another release. She also praised Seoul for last week’s pledge of $500 million in assistance for war-torn Afghanistan, it said.
Lee and Clinton agreed to work together to help Japan recover from the devastating earthquake and tsunami, and to exchange information on the crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, the statement said.
Clinton expressed hope that South Korea, as host for next year’s Nuclear Security Summit, will play a leading role in producing progress in the area of nuclear safety in consideration of heightened global attention on the matter in the wake of Japan’s nuclear crisis, the presidential office said.
The statement gave no further details on their discussions on North Korea.
Clinton’s visit came after China’s top nuclear envoy Wu Dawei proposed in front of reporters after meeting with his North Korean counterpart in Beijing that the nuclear delegates of the two Koreas hold dialogue to pave the way for the resumption of the six-nation talks.
South Korea reacted positively to the suggestion, saying it would welcome such a meeting as the North had long brushed aside the prospect of inter-Korean talks on its nuclear arms programs, which it says are aimed at deterring a U.S. invasion.
Her trip also came amid speculation that Washington might be moving to resume food aid to the North. Seoul is apparently against resuming any massive food assistance to the communist neighbor as it could undercut international pressure on Pyongyang to apologize for its two deadly attacks on the South last year.
Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in a release after Clinton’s talks with Kim that the two sides renewed their condemnation of the ongoing uranium enrichment project by North Korea and agreed to press the international community to “sternly” deal with it.
The two top diplomats also urged Pyongyang to show in deeds as well as in words that it is committed to denuclearization, calling such a move a precondition to the resumption of the six-party nuclear talks involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S.
After talks with Lee, Clinton left for Japan for the final leg of her global tour.