U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Seoul in April to bolster the bilateral alliance and talk about North Korea’s nuclear program with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, the White House said Wednesday.
Obama “will meet with President Park to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to a strong alliance, review recent developments in North Korea and our combined efforts to promote denuclearization, and discuss our ongoing implementation of the Korea-United States FTA,” the White House said in a press release.
The visit is part of a four-nation Asian tour which will also include Japan, Malaysia and the Philippines, Washington said. The U.S. president is expected to begin his two-day visit to South Korea on April 23, after a trip to Japan, according to sources.
On early Thursday morning, Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul welcomed Obama’s planned visit to Korea.
“The visit will be a good opportunity for the two leaders to have an in-depth discussion on moving the Korea-U.S. alliance forward and issues on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia and beyond,” Cheong Wa Dae said in a statement.
South Korea was not originally part of Obama’s Asian tour. It was widely expected that Obama would visit Japan in April, accepting an invitation from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who took office in December 2012. The decision to add South Korea came amid rising concerns that the initial plan could deliver the wrong message, that the U.S. is on Japan’s side, if Obama only visits Japan and skips Seoul.
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have frozen in recent years as Japan refuses to offer an apology for sexual slavery and other atrocities committed during its 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea and has made repeated claims to South Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo.
The move also reflects a desire to signal to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that there are no gaps in the U.S. and South Korean resolve to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear program and provocations.
It indicates that Obama is keen to avoid dealing a political slight to Park by visiting Tokyo and not Seoul, reports said.
The White House says Obama’s trip was part of his commitment to increasing U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.
He will try to push for negotiations on a vast Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact that would include 12 nations, and is seen by some observers as an attempt to meet the economic challenge of a rising China.
The president, however, may encounter some skepticism from regional partners because Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, a key Obama ally, has expressed doubts about granting him expanded powers to negotiate trade deals.
In light of Reid’s remarks, Pacific Rim nations will be loath to make concessions in the trade talks, fearing that any deal agreed to may be modified by the U.S. Congress.
Obama will stop first in Japan, where he will meet Abe. Then he will travel to Seoul for talks with Park, likely to be dominated by North Korea’s latest maneuvering on the divided peninsula.
Pyongyang is currently fuming at the prospect of annual South Korea-U.S. military exercises starting later this month, which it views as an act of war.
From Seoul, Obama will head to Malaysia to meet Prime Minister Najib Razak to discuss deepening defense and military ties.
Obama will be the first U.S. president to visit Malaysia since Lyndon Johnson in 1966. The Obama administration has been building on U.S. efforts to cultivate closer ties with the country following the two-decade rule of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who left office in 2003.
Obama’s final stop will be Manila, where he will meet President Benigno Aquino and discuss evolving military relations, including rotations of U.S. troops in the country.
Obama’s visits to Manila and Kuala Lumpur are intended to make up for his cancellation of a previous Asia tour in October amid domestic political strife in Washington.
A subtext to his visit will be heightening territorial tensions between several U.S. allies and China, which worsened after Beijing’s recent declaration of an “air defense identification zone“ in the East China Sea.
Beijing was also angered last week when Washington stiffened its line on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, calling for adjusting or clarifying its claims.
By Cho Chung-un and news reports (firstname.lastname@example.org