On Eve Of G-20 Summit, Criticism Of U.S. Mounts

South Korea is preparing for its moment in the sun at the G-20 summit, deploying 45,000 police to prevent any unrest among protesters. But in the run-up to the summit, the global criticism of the U.S. policy of quantitative easing is mounting, with many predicting a showdown. However, first President Obama must get down to business: on Thursday, a summit with the South Korean president when a long-awaited Free Trade Agreement may finally be clinched.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

President Obama arrived in Seoul, South Korea today for the G-20 summit, which begins tomorrow. The president has spent the past several days touring Asia, with stops in Indonesia and India. For South Korea, the chance to host President Obama and the rest of the G-20 presents an enormous opportunity in terms of policy and perception.

NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Seoul.

LOUISA LIM: As President Obama touched down in Seoul, South Korean news channels covered his arrival live. This is a defining moment for the country, which has spent millions preparing for the G-20.

Professor CHE SU CHAN(ph) (KAIST, Seoul): It's, in a sense, a coming out for Korea.

LIM: Che Su Chan is a professor as KAIST, Korea's answer to MIT. He says for South Korea, being the host and chair of the G-20 meeting has deeper significance.

Prof. CHAN: The fact that Korea, which has regarded itself as a sort of weak nation, has become a sort of middle ground nation. And now it can claim itself to be part of this expanded leadership.

(Soundbite of crowd)

LIM: South Korea is taking no chances. Some 50,000 police are patrolling the streets. But big demonstrations are planned for tomorrow.

(Soundbite of protest)

LIM: Some protests are already under way. Here, a few dozen activists rally. They're showing their opposition to a free trade agreement between South Korea and the U.S. It's a deal negotiators are still hoping to clinch before President Obama meets his South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-Bak, tomorrow.

It's been held up by disputes over South Korea's treatment of American autos and beef. Now the South Korean press is hinting a compromise may have been reached. Protester Hwong Hyan Jun(ph) says he believes any FTA will benefit big business, not ordinary people.

Mr. HWONG HYAN JUN: So we cannot believe the Korean government. I think they will give too much to the U.S. government. It's not fair to Korean people.

LIM: So if a deal is reached, it could ignite more fury on the streets. But if it isn't, U.S. businesses could suffer, according to Tami Overby, vice president for Asia of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Ms. TAMI OVERBY (Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Asia): The free trade agreement, really, it is about economics, but it's also about the American footprint in Asia. The rest of the world has not been standing still. So America has got to get in the game.

LIM: Next on the agenda, another tricky bilateral - this time with China's president, Hu Jintao. The relationship has spiraled with disputes over trade, territorial issues, Tibet and Taiwan, among other things. International relations professor Jin Tang Rong from People's University in Beijing, says China's been taken aback by the storms overshadowing the two powers.

Professor JIN TANG RONG (People's University, Beijing): The climate change from clear sky to raining is beyond the expectation on the Chinese side. We don't know what's going wrong. My personal expectation is that after this summit, the freefall of China-U.S. relations will start.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Let's go, let's go, let's go.

LIM: After that bilateral summit, the opening of the G-20 itself, which even has its own theme song. This normally stodgy economic meeting could prove surprisingly exciting this year. In the run up, officials from Brazil and Germany lashed out at the U.S. policy of quantitative easing, calling it clueless and akin to throwing money from a helicopter.

China, too, was critical, perhaps spotting an opportunity to turn the focus away from its own currency. President Obama has responded by writing to the G-20 leaders, arguing that a strong recovery in the U.S. would be its most important contribution to global recovery. For the president, this visit to a normally welcoming ally is looking increasingly contentious.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul.

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