US President Barack Obama has begun talks in South Korea with his counterpart, Park Geun-hye. Domestic and diplomatic troubles plaguing Seoul are expected to influence the highly anticipated talks.
On Friday, US President Barack Obama traveled to South Korea on the second leg of his Asia tour after wrapping up his visit to Japan. The trip began with a visit to a national war memorial, where the US head of state laid a wreath in commemoration of victims. He then was received at the Blue House by South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The US president's Asia tour comes at a difficult time for South Korea, which is grappling with a ferry tragedy that claimed hundreds of lives. Obama acknowledged the disaster with an offering of condolences.
"I'm very mindful that my visit comes at a time of mourning for the people of this nation," Obama told Park. "For now, I just want to express, on the part of the American people, condolences for the incredible loss that has taken place."
He also presented his South Korean counterpart with a gift: the American flag that flew over the White House on the day of the ferry disaster.
The South Korean president accepted his gift with thanks, saying: "The Korean people draw great strength from your kindness."
Defusing tensions with the North
Relations with North Korea were expected to dominate talks between Obama and Park on Friday.
Speaking at a press joint press conference, Obama said Pyongyang posed a threat to not just the US and South Korea, but also to neighboring China.
"[Beijing] is beginning to recognize that North Korea is not just a nuisance but a significant problem for their own security," he said.
It was time to find an effective solution - sanctions that had "even more bite" - against Pyongyang, the US president said, adding that the task would prove difficult given North Korea's current state of isolation from the international community.
"We are not going to find a magic bullet that solves this problem overnight," Obama said.
Last month, North Korea warned that it would not rule out "a new form" of nuclear test. The threat came in response to the UN Security Council's condemnation of its testing of ballistic missiles. The meeting on Friday was aimed at discussing diplomatic solutions to Pyongyang's atomic weapons program.
South Korea grapples with past
Obama and Park were also expected to discuss other diplomatic tensions plaguing Seoul at the moment.
The Japanese prime minister has reignited lingering anger over his country's actions during World War II by visiting a controversial shrine late last year.
On Friday, Obama called on both countries to reconcile their different views of the past and be mindful of the pain still fresh in the minds of those affected by war crimes.
Japan's wartime practice of sexual slavery "was a terrible, egregious violation of human rights. Those women were violated in ways that even in the midst of war were shocking," the US president said.
"It is in the interests of both Japan and the Korean people to look forwards as well as backwards and to find ways in which the heartache and the pain of the past can be resolved," he added.
Obama began his tour in Japan on Thursday, where officials said progress had been made on discussing a trade agreement. After wrapping up his visit to the South Korean capital on Saturday, he is scheduled to travel to Malaysia and the Philippines.
kms/mkg (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)