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Obama to meet SKorea leader on standoff

US President Barack Obama was set on Tuesday to meet with the leader of South Korea, who is seeking security guarantees as a standoff escalates with nuclear-armed North Korea.

world Updated: Jun 16, 2009 07:11 IST

US President Barack Obama was set on Tuesday to meet with the leader of South Korea, who is seeking security guarantees as a standoff escalates with nuclear-armed North Korea.

The summit comes a day after the latest show of defiance by North Korea, which said that some 100,000 people rallied to denounce a tightening of UN sanctions on the hardline communist state for testing a nuclear bomb.

South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak has indicated that he wants Obama, who has set a goal of abolishing nuclear weapons, to reiterate that South Korea is under the US security umbrella.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told Lee in a meeting Monday that the United States was committed to defend South Korea "through all necessary means, including the nuclear umbrella," Lee's office said in a statement.

The United States stations some 28,500 troops in South Korea and more than 40,000 more in nearby Japan, which has tense relations with Pyongyang.

Lee, a conservative businessman, took over last year and -- delighting many in Washington -- reversed a decade-long "sunshine policy" under which South Korea put few restrictions on aid to the impoverished North.

The US Congress greeted him by passing a resolution demanding that North Korea end its "hostile rhetoric" against Lee, routinely berated in Pyongyang's state media as "the traitor."

"I think it's important that the president and the secretary of state know that Congress will stand behind them if they have to take stronger action," said the resolution's main sponsor, Republican Congressman Peter King.

"I think everything should be on the table."

The resolution also urges North Korea to return to a six-nation disarmament accord, which it bolted from in April after testing a long-range missile.

There has been growing speculation in Washington that North Korea may conduct its third-ever nuclear test, even after the United Nations Security Council last week unanimously voted to tighten sanctions on Pyongyang.

North Korea is ready to "deal telling blows at the vital parts of the US and wipe out all its imperialist aggressor troops no matter where they are in the world," military officer
Pak Jae-Gyong told Pyongyang's giant rally, according to state media.

While North Korea has posed an early test for the Obama administration, some analysts believe that its military moves are primarily for domestic reasons as ailing leader Kim Jong-Il, 67, tries to bolster authority and establish a succession plan involving his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un.

Lee's visit had been planned months in advance as part of the young Obama administration's outreach to key allies.

The agenda was originally expected to focus on broadening the two nations' alliance, which was borne of the 1950-53 Korean War but has expanded to include cooperation in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and economic issues.

Barring rain, Lee is slated to be the first foreign leader to appear with Obama in the Rose Garden next to the White House's Oval Office, a favorite setting for presidents to sign legislation or make major announcements.

Lee is hoping to push Obama to move ahead with a free trade agreement, sealed in 2007 after painstaking negotiations and sometimes violent protests in Seoul.

Obama, then a senator, denounced the agreement as flawed and US lawmakers continue to press South Korea to open its market further to US beef and cars.

Lee told US Trade Representative Ron Kirk that the trade deal "will not only benefit both countries, but will also help significantly strengthen the overall alliance between them."
Leaders in South Korea, hit hard by the global crisis, see the trade deal with the world's largest economy as vital for the future of a nation sandwiched between regional titans Japan and China.

First Published: Jun 16, 2009 07:10 IST