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[Editorial] Obama’s Seoul visit

Substance, not length of stay, will matter

U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive in Seoul on April 25 for an overnight stay following his three-day state visit to Japan, diplomatic sources here were quoted by local media as saying this week. It will be his fourth trip to Seoul since taking office in 2009.

The White House earlier announced that Obama would travel to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April, stopping short of disclosing detailed schedules. A South Korean official said Wednesday Obama’s itinerary in Seoul had been fixed and consultations were underway on the timing of a formal announcement.

Obama has accepted Japan’s request for his state visit to include two nights, which will have him in Seoul for less than 24 hours before embarking on the trip to the two Southeast Asian countries.

Some commentators here take note of the difference between the lengths of Obama’s visits to South Korea and Japan, suggesting Seoul may have been outwitted by Tokyo in becoming the diplomatic priority of Washington. But this view seems an overly sensitive reaction.

What matters will not be how long he will stay here, but how substantial his consultations with South Korean leader Park Geun-hye will be. It was not wise for Obama’s original schedule to exclude Seoul on the ground he had already visited frequently. He later made a wise decision to visit Seoul for a fifth time, which will prove essential for consolidating Washington’s trilateral cooperation with its two key allies in Asia at a time when tensions run high on the Korean Peninsula and concerns are mounting over China’s rapid arms build up. Obama hosted a three-way meeting with Park and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who have been at odds with each other over historical issues involving their countries, in The Hague last month on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit.

It is hoped that his short stay in Seoul will be enough time for the U.S. and South Korean leaders to hold close consultations on ways to cement the bilateral alliance and send a stern warning against North Korea’s recent moves to ramp up tensions. On the occasion of his visit, Seoul officials also need to be more thoughtful about resolving pending issues with Washington, including South Korea’s participation in the U.S.-led regional missile defense shield.