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The G-20 summit got underway in South Korea today and already it stands apart from previous meetings in one key respect: tone. Gone are the niceties. Some world leaders are frustrated, if not downright angry, about U.S. economic policy. And they've wasted no time expressing their feelings. For his part, President Obama voiced confidence that leaders would agree on steps for balanced and sustainable global growth. But his day was marked by the failure to conclude an important trade pact.
NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Seoul.
LOUISA LIM: A formal reception marked the start of this G-20 summit. But as President Obama swept in to stand beside his South Korean host, his smile may have masked inner unease. After all, his visit has failed to clinch the big prize: a free trade agreement with South Korea three years in the making. President Obama said he still hoped the deal would be reached in weeks, not months.
At a press conference he was also forced to defend the U.S. plan to pump $600 billion into its own economy to stimulate growth, a process known as quantitative easing.
President BARACK OBAMA: The most important thing that the United States can do for the world economy is to grow, because we continue to be the world's largest market and a huge engine for all other countries to grow.
LIM: The depths of dissatisfaction became clear when South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, was asked whether he feared an influx of hot money due to this U.S. policy. His answer through a translator might have been a joke, but a pointed one at that.
President LEE MYUNG-BAK (South Korea): (Through translator) I think that kind of question should be asked to me when President Obama is not standing right next to me.
LIM: Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, had no such scruples. He said such policies would bankrupt the world. China, perhaps seeking to deflect attention from criticism over its own currency, has also weighed in. It said Washington should not force others to take medicine for its own disease. The gloves are well and truly off.
Jasper Kim from Ewha University says such strong language as the summit opens is almost unheard of.
Professor JASPER KIM (Ewha University): Usually what happens is there's a toning down of the rhetoric. As the leaders of their respective states come in, they want to play nice. And before, it's a lot of positioning. But that positioning and that rhetoric is still as hot as ever.
(Soundbite of protesting)
LIM: On the streets today, opposition to the G-20. Several thousand people took part in a series of small rallies. Many were clutching signs saying: put people first. Organizer Lee Tae-ho says the G-20 hasn't helped those who've been most affected by the financial crisis: the poor.
Mr. LEE TAE-HO (Protester): (Through translator) The G-20 is like a firefighter. Those who started the fires, the financial firms and the big banks have been helped out, but, still, the world is being affected by this fire.
(Soundbite of protest)
LIM: An overwhelming police presence kept today's demonstrations largely peaceful. In fact, this year, the clashes may end up being not on the streets, but inside the conference halls. There's been no attempt to hide the squabbling among negotiators. Jasper Kim...
Prof. KIM: It's sort of a punch to the stomach to the G-20. In the beginning with the subprime crisis, you know, about the time when the G-20 began, people had an idealistic notion that this would change global governance forever. But I think we're starting to see the idealism turn into realism very, very quickly.
LIM: And the danger is that that realism could turn into protectionism, with each country placing its own short-term economic interests above all else. When the 20 world leaders reconvene, they have just one day to turn mutual accusations into meaningful solidarity. And at this stage, it's not at all clear that they'll be able to do that.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Seoul.
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