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President Obama finished his trip to Asia today with a final stop in South Korea. He met American troops who've been watching the border with North Korea for more than half a century now. On his final stop on his tour Mr. Obama also met the South Korean president, who joked that Mr. Obama saved the best for last. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
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SCOTT HORSLEY: The welcoming committee outside the presidential Blue House in Seoul included schoolchildren, a modern military band and South Korean soldiers dressed in ancient blue and yellow uniforms. Mr. Obama called it the most spectacular welcome of his eight day Asian journey, adding that he especially liked the traditional military outfits. South Korean President, Lee Myung-bak, jokingly replied the colorful floor-length costumes are difficult to fight in.
Afterwards, the two men held talks in which Lee said they agreed to redouble their efforts on a U.S.-Korean free trade agreement. South Korea's already America's seventh-largest trading partner. Mr. Obama says they can do better.
President BARACK OBAMA: I am a strong believer that both countries can benefit from expanding our trade ties.
HORSLEY: A free trade agreement between the two countries already exists. It was signed by the Bush administration more than two years ago. But it's never been ratified. Since the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama has been a somewhat reluctant free-trader, mindful that many Americans, especially in his own party, don't believe cross-border commerce is working for them.
Today, Mr. Obama said South Korea bares little of the blame for America's ballooning trade deficits.
President OBAMA: And one of my goals is to make sure that as we work through these issues that the American people, American businesses, American workers recognize that we have to look at agreement and each country on its own merits and make sure that we can create the kind of win-win situation that I know President Lee is interested in seeing as well.
HORSLEY: One of the big sticking points in the trade deal has been access to the Korean market by U.S. automakers. President Lee noted that issue didn't stop the European Union from inking a free trade deal, even though Europe has its own automakers to worry about.
Indeed, free trade advocates, like Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, warned, the U.S. delay in ratifying a South Korean trade deal is putting would-be American exporters at a competitive disadvantage.
Mr. FRED BERGSTEN (Peterson Institute for International Economics): The United States is really shooting itself in the foot. We negotiate a free trade agreement with Korea, one of the biggest and most dynamic economies in the world over two years ago, but have not ratified it.
In the meanwhile, the Europeans have negotiated an agreement, India has negotiated an agreement. Those will probably go into place before our agreement. We will be discriminated against. We will lose exports, we will lose jobs. There will be an adverse effect on our economy, because we have failed, in that case, to follow through on our own initiative.
HORSLEY: The two presidents also talked, today, about climate change, Afghanistan and South Korea's role as host of next year's G-20 talks. As usual, though, the nuclear threat from North Korea overshadowed most other subjects. President Lee said negotiations with the north are never simple. For 20 years, he said, they've taken one step forward and two steps back.
But, speaking through a translator, he said efforts by the Mr. Obama and the U.N. Security Council to put pressure on North Korea have been helpful and he hopes the north will quickly return to six party talks.
President LEE MYUNG-BAK (South Korea): (Through translator) International cooperation is perfect, in my opinion, in terms of trying to resolve this issue peacefully. And I think we are entering into a new chapter in bringing this issue to an end.
HORSLEY: More than 25,000 U.S. troops remain on the Korean peninsula, almost 60 years after the outbreak of the Korean War. President Obama ended his visit by meeting with some of those troops before his scheduled return to Washington later today.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Seoul.
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