By Hwang Doo-hyong
WASHINGTON, Nov. 11 (Yonhap) -- U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday embarked on an eight-day trip to South Korea and three other Asian nations amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula after a rare inter-Korean naval clash earlier this week.
The skirmish, which crippled a North Korean patrol ship that intruded into South Korean waters and ignored warning shots, took place Tuesday, prompting media speculation that North Korea is trying to attract U.S. attention ahead of Obama's planned visit to Seoul next week.
Obama will fly into Seoul Wednesday after visiting Tokyo, Singapore and Beijing. In Tokyo, Obama will likely discuss realignment of the decades-old alliance after the inauguration of the liberal Yukio Hatoyama government, which seeks less dependence on the U.S.
In Beijing, climate change, human rights and economic cooperation, including reevaluation of the Chinese currency yuan and tariffs on Chinese tires, will likely be high on the agenda. Obama will also attend the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Singapore.
"Many will be focused on what President Obama says about trade policy given Asian concerns about rising protectionist sentiment in the United States, particularly in the aftermath of the U.S. decision to slap punitive tariffs on Chinese-made tires in September," Victor Cha, the Korea chairman at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said about the APEC summit.
North Korea will likely be the underlying theme of Obama's first Asian trip since his inauguration in January.
"APEC leaders will discuss North Korea and the state of the six-party talks, which have lately shown small signs of progress and greater Pyongyang interest in returning to some form of negotiation," said Cha, formerly senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council under the Bush administration.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also said Monday that the North Korean nuclear issue will be discussed at the APEC forum, and other U.S. officials said Obama will exchange opinions on the issue while meeting with his counterparts in Tokyo, Beijing and Seoul, all members of six-party talks on ending the North's nuclear ambitions.
Jeffrey Bader, senior director for East Asian affairs at the National Security Council, said Monday, "North Korea obviously will be the principal focus of this stop. We will be talking about how we reengage in the six-party process with the agenda of denuclearization and reaffirmation of previous commitments."
The State Department said Tuesday Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, will visit Pyongyang "sometime between now and the end of the year" to discuss resumption of the six-party talks, deadlocked over U.N. sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile tests.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Wednesday said the naval clash will not affect the U.S. plans to send Bosworth to Pyongyang "in the near future" as part of the six-party process.
Among other issues to be discussed in the upcoming Lee-Obama summit are South Korea's contribution to Afghanistan, climate and economic issues, White House officials said.
"The president has the ability to consult with Asian partners about his strategic reviews as well as their own commitment in Afghanistan," Bader 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.
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.
On the pending free trade agreement with South Korea, Michael Froman, deputy national security adviser 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 at the summit with Lee on the free trade deal, unratified since it was signed in June 2007.
Obama is not expected to bring a concrete proposal. The Democratic Congress is reluctant to take up the agreement, opposed by trade unions due to fears over job cuts in the worst recession in decades.
"A bellwether of the administration's overall trade policy for APEC countries will be the administration's stated views on how and at what speed to proceed with the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement," said Cha.
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