S. Koreans eager for answers from Obama
Stars and Stripes November 17, 2009
SEOUL — When President Barack Obama arrives Wednesday in Seoul, most of the world will be watching to see what he says about tempestuous North Korea.
But many South Koreans will be paying as much attention to what he says about a stalled trade agreement with the United States and their country’s unpopular involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
Ryu Gil-jae, a professor at Kyungnam University’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, said most Koreans don’t want to send troops to Afghanistan and don’t believe the war is justified.
"[Obama] needs to persuade the Koreans," he said.
South Korea withdrew a force of about 200 medics and engineers from Afghanistan in 2007, after 23 South Korean missionaries there were captured by the Taliban and two were executed.
The government has since sent a civilian medical and engineer teams to Afghanistan. Now it is considering expansion of a reconstruction team plus deploying police and troops in a noncombat role to protect them, Foreign Ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said in a recent Associated Press report.
Progressive opposition parties vowed to block the troop dispatch plan, which is subject to parliamentary approval but is expected to pass because the pro-U.S. ruling party dominates the National Assembly.
Local media reports estimate a total of 300 police and troops and 130 more aid workers would be sent.
Obama needs to capitalize on his popularity in South Korea in persuading the public that sending their troops to Afghanistan is worthwhile, Ryu said, adding that large-scale protests against South Korea’s involvement in Afghanistan are likely.
Experts said Obama’s visit to South Korea will be overshadowed by higher-profile stops in Japan and China earlier in his trip. But Bang Tae-seop, an expert on Northeast Asian affairs and the South Korean-U.S. relationship at the Samsung Economic Research Institute, said South Koreans want to see tangible progress on a pending free trade agreement between the two countries.
"He should show South Koreans that he is trying to strengthen their relationship as economic partners in order to step up the strategic alliance between the nations," Bang said.
Obama’s stop in Seoul will come at the end of his Asia trip, and just over a week after North and South Korean warships briefly exchanged fire in their first naval clash in seven years. It also comes after a recent U.S. announcement that it would send envoy Stephen Bosworth to North Korea to try to persuade the communist nation to return to six-party nuclear disarmament talks, possibly before the end of the year.
"North Korea obviously will be a principal focus of this stop," said Jeffrey Bader, National Security Council senior director for East Asian affairs
In a speech Saturday in Tokyo, Obama said the U.S. is prepared to offer North Korea a different future from its current isolationism, repression of its people and widespread poverty. But the country must end its "belligerence" and live up to its international obligations if it expects to gain world respect, he said.
After meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in Seoul on Thursday morning and then attending a joint news conference, Obama is to speak to U.S. troops at a base officials have yet to disclose before returning to the United States that evening.
Ryu said he hopes Obama’s visit will pave the way for more openness from South Korea about progress on dissolving North Korea’s nuclear program.
"The South Korean government keeps saying, ‘Everything is going very well,’ " Ryu said. "But they never say how, what and why. People want to know."