U.S. President Barack Obama will devote a major part of his trip to Seoul later this week to expressing condolences to victims of the sunken ferry Sewol and assuring assistance to the Korean government during search and rescue operations, the White House said Monday.
“I can certainly expect that this will be a big part of his trip,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, in Washington on Monday.
“I’m sure the president will want to find a way to express to those families and to the people of the Republic of Korea how much we support them in this difficult time.”
The U.S. president is scheduled to arrive in Seoul on Friday. The South Korean capital is the second stop on his Asian tour after Tokyo, where he plans to stay for three days. After Seoul, Obama is to visit Kuala Lumpur and Manila.
It is his fourth visit to Seoul as the U.S. leader. His trip is aimed at reassuring the U.S.-Korea security alliance on the Korean Peninsula and easing tensions between Korea and Japan.
On the sidelines of his trip, the U.S. government said it would also return nine ancient Korean seals including Hwangjejibo, a royal stamp that symbolized King Gojong’s will for independence in the late 19th century. The seals were shipped out of Korea by a U.S. soldier during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Obama was also scheduled to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul as part of his cultural diplomacy and show his interest in Korean culture and history.
However, with Korea being gripped by shock and sorrow from the sinking of the ferry that carried 476 passengers, Obama is expected to spend more time offering sympathy to grief-stricken South Koreans during his trip.
The U.S. president has already issued a statement offering condolences to the families of the victims. He ordered U.S. officials to provide necessary assistance as he felt a great deal of agony, not as the leader of Korea’s main ally, but as a father of two daughters, officials said.
He plans to hold a bilateral meeting with President Park Geun-hye and hold a joint press conference with her, Rhodes said.
In a show of support, the Pentagon said Monday that it has sent a Navy salvage ship to help in Korean operations.
The Korean government did not request the U.S. to dispatch the ship. But the USNS Safeguard was being moved from Thailand toward South Korea, just in case Seoul asks for the U.S. assistance, Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said.
The ship is designed to salvage or repair ships. It can lift, tow and conduct diving operations, according to reports.
The U.S. government has already sent the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship, to help search and rescue operations off the southwestern coast, where the ferry sank on Wednesday.
“Helicopters from the Bonhomme Richard flew search and rescue operations yesterday,” Warren said, adding that a U.S. Navy engineer and master diver are participating in the operation with the South Korean Navy.
Russia and Japan also offered to join the search and rescue operations for the missing passengers if needed. The Korean government has not made requests for their assistance yet.
In a letter of condolence to the Korean government, Russian Emergency Situations Minister Vladimir Puchkov said he is ready to dispatch trained divers and rescue equipment whenever Seoul requests. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has already offered to send the Self-Defense Forces on the rescue mission.
By Cho Chung-un and news reports