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(LEAD) Obama, Lee to discuss N. Korea, Afghanistan, FTA: White House

All Headlines 08:11 November 10, 2009

(ATTN: CHANGES slug, headline, lead; UPDATES with more details throughout)
By Hwang Doo-hyong

WASHINGTON, Nov. 9 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Barack Obama will discuss North Korea's denuclearization, South Korea's contribution to the war in Afghanistan and a pending free trade agreement while in Seoul next week for a summit with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, the White House said Monday.

"North Korea obviously will be the principle focus of this stop," Jeffrey Bader, senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council, said in a conference call to reporters on the occasion of Obama's upcoming trip to Asia, including South Korea, which begins Thursday. Obama will also travel to Japan, Singapore and China.

"We will be talking about how we reengage in the six-party process with the agenda of denuclearization and reaffirmation of previous commitments," Bader said.

The six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia have been in a lull over U.N. sanctions for the North's missile and nuclear tests earlier this year.

The Obama administration will likely announce soon plans to send Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, for a breakthrough in the six-party talks, to which North Korean leader Kim Jong-il recently pledged to return, pending the outcome of bilateral talks with the U.S.

Bader said Lee and Obama had "developed a close relationship" in the six-party talks and other issues. "We have taken a step in the six-party process, closely coordinating and checking with South Koreans before we've done anything."

Among other issues to be discussed are South Korea's contribution to Afghanistan, climate and economic issues, the White House official said.

"The president has the ability to consult with Asian partners about his strategic reviews as well as their own commitment in Afghanistan," he said. "I believe this will be a subject of consultations in Japan as well as in South Korea. South Koreans have recently made a fairly robust commitment to increase their efforts in Afghanistan."

South Korea announced last month its plans to send a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to Afghanistan aside from its 25-member medical team currently operating in the war-ravaged Central Asian nation.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said the PRT will be accompanied by troops to ensure security, without specifying the size of the PRT or the number of troops, but Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan has said that Seoul was considering sending a 130-strong PRT, and Defense Ministry officials have estimated the number of troops at 300.

Bader said he appreciated the contributions South Korea and other Asian allies are making in the war on terror. "It is important to underscore that several Asian nations have been very strong contributors in Afghanistan through security means, through civilian assistance and financial assistance."

Obama has yet to make a decision on the request by the U.S. military to dispatch 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency is gaining power despite the presence of about 68,000 American troops.

South Korea withdrew more than 200 military medics and engineers from Afghanistan in 2007 after 23 South Korean Christian missionaries were held captive. Two of them were killed and the rest released after the Seoul government pledged to withdraw the troops by the end of that year.

South Korea currently maintains 25 medical civilians at a U.S. base in Afghanistan.

Yu, South Korea's top diplomat, has said that increased aid to Afghanistan by South Korea is linked to the stable deployment of 28,500 U.S. troops in the Korean Peninsula, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Yu made his remarks just days after Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told U.S. soldiers at Yongsan Army Garrison in Seoul last month that discussions are under way about rotating U.S. troops out of South Korea, although he said, "I certainly wouldn't expect this to happen in the near future."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month also urged South Korea to enhance its contributions to Afghanistan.

"I see a different dynamic and logic to Korea's international military role today," Gates said. "In the past, deployments were considered something that Korea was doing for the United States. Going forward, Korea's international military contributions should be seen as what they are: something that is done to benefit your own security and vital national interests."

On the pending free trade agreement with South Korea, Michael Froman, deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs, said ,"There are some outstanding issues to address. He (Obama) is prepared to have conversations with the Koreans."

Froman did not elaborate on what Obama will propose in the summit with Lee on the free trade deal pending more than two years since it was signed in June 2007.

Obama is not expected to bring a concrete proposal on the Korea FTA as the Democratic Congress is reluctant to deal with the deal amid trade unions are opposing the deal in the worst recession in decades due to fears over job cuts.

Obama also does not want to deviate from his lobbying efforts in Congress for other priorities such as health care reform and the war in Afghanistan.

Autos and beef have been major hurdles to congressional approval of the KORUS FTA.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said last week that his office was "developing proposals that will enable us to address concerns with respect to automotive trade."

"All we are asking for is for our own auto companies to be able to compete on a level playing field in the Korean market," he said. "We are also looking at concerns with respect to agricultural products more broadly to see how they can be addressed most effectively."

U.S. officials have said they favor side agreements to address the issues rather than revising the text of the deal itself.


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