(News Focus) Obama gives political 'gift' to Seoul, may hope for trade deal in return
By Lee Chi-dong
TORONTO, June 26 (Yonhap) -- As U.S. President Barack Obama gave a political gift to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak by accepting Seoul's demand for more time in taking back the wartime operational control (OPCON) of its troops, the question now is what Obama wants from Lee in return.
After their summit here on Saturday on the sidelines of the G-20 gathering, Obama announced a three-year delay in the OPCON transition, reversing Washington's long-held stance that it should be carried out as scheduled on April 17, 2012.
The U.S. had preferred the original target date agreed in 2007 by Lee's predecessor and Obama as part of Washington's global policy of strategic flexibility for its troops abroad and South Korea's pursuit of a larger role in its own defense. The delay was requested by Seoul.
Both Lee and Obama cited new security conditions, apparently referring to the North's second nuclear test last year and the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March. South Korea concluded a North Korean submarine torpedoed the 1,200-ton Cheonan, which was on a routine patrol mission just south of their western sea border. Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed in the incident.
Rescheduling the OPCON transfer date was one of Lee's campaign pledge, as conservatives in South Korea argued the country's troops need more time to build up its defense capability so as not to send a wrong signal to North Korea.
By coincidence or not, Obama announced a plan to restart discussions on a free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea. The U.S. signed the FTA with the world's 14th largest economy three years ago, but the accord has yet to be ratified by the parliaments of the two sides amid strong backlash from U.S. automakers and beef exporters.
With Lee standing next to him, the U.S. president said, "I want to make sure that everything is lined up properly by the time I visit (South) Korea in November" for the next G-20 session.
"In a few months after that, I intend to present it to Congress," Obama said.
South Korea's Trade Minister Kim Jong-hoon said Obama raised the trade issue shortly after discussions on Cheonan at the summit.
"President Obama said he had instructed the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to work for the adjustment of the FTA (with South Korea), not renegotiation," Kim told a press briefing. Kim emphasized this was the first time that Obama presented a concrete deadline for completing the FTA talks and stated his resolve to submit the pact to Congress.
"We will have to see what the USTR will bring to us," the minister said when asked about what the U.S. is expected to demand.
It is uncertain whether the U.S. will seek anything in return from South Korea for the agreement to delay the OPCON transfer.
South Korean officials refuted speculation of such arrangements.
"There was no demand from the U.S. (in connection with the OPCON issue)," Kim Sung-hwan, senior presidential secretary for foreign affairs and security, said in a separate press briefing.
Saying the deal on the OPCON transfer was a fruit of the robust alliance and mutual trust between the two sides, Kim stressed that the North's military threats and provocations brought Seoul and Washington closer, contrary to Pyongyang's intent to drive a wedge between them.
In a joint press conference after their summit, Lee and Obama sent a clear message not only to North Korea but also to China that Pyongyang should be held to account for its attack on Cheonan.
Obama reaffirmed a strong defense commitment for the South and full support for its campaign to condemn Pyongyang through the U.N. Security Council.
South Korea's move has been boosted by a joint declaration earlier Saturday of the G-8 leaders, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in Canada that condemned the North's attack. Russia and China -- the North's last remaining major allies with the rights to veto at the Council -- holds the key to deciding the level of the U.N. censure on North Korea.
It remains to be seen whether Chinese President Hu Jintao will express a more commited view on the Cheonan incident when he meets Lee on Sunday. In his previous talks in Shanghai at the end of April, Hu offered condolences to the bereaved families of the killed sailors.