White House calls Obama’s Asian tour a success

Even before President Obama boarded his home-bound flight for Washington, capping a grueling weeklong Asian tour, the White House was scrambling to combat perceptions that the trip failed to produce concrete results.

Compared to Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, the U.S. is putting its alliances “on a firmer footing” and has “reasserted our leadership in the region,” the White House said in a statement released to reporters hours before the president’s flight home.

“Overall, American leadership was absent from this region for the last several years,” the release said.

Obama met today with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and called for North Korea to take “serious steps” to give up its nuclear weapons and commit himself to reviving a free-trade deal between Seoul and Washington that has stalled in Congress.

In a nationally televised joint news conference, Lee said the two presidents agreed to offer North Korea a “grand bargain” designed to provide the North with security guarantees and economic assistance in exchange for dismantling its core nuclear programs.

This last stop on Obama’s Asia tour was a bit of a diplomatic breather after the sticky foreign-policy issues the U.S. president faced during more formal stops in Japan and China, where at times he seemed to struggle to get his message out to the Chinese people.

Following the Seoul news conference, David Axelrod, a top Obama advisor, was asked about Obama’s town-hall-style meeting with students in Shanghai earlier in the week: Did the White House wish the Chinese had agreed to broadcast the event more widely?

“The fact is that he had the first-ever town-hall meeting in China -- broadcast in Shanghai, streamed on our website, a text of which was on their website and widely read,” Axelrod said.

He added: “These things don’t change overnight. But certainly he made strong statements to a Chinese audience on a number of issues that are central to our values, and I think that will permeate over time.”

Today in Seoul, standing before colorful military regiments and waving children, Obama said the welcome was the most spectacular ceremony he’d enjoyed so far in Asia.

Lee presented Obama, who has studied the Korean self-defense art of tae kwon do, with a uniform and black belt in the discipline.

On the eve of Obama’s visit, during which he planned to meet with U.S. troops stationed here, South Korea announced the expansion of its presence in Afghanistan, saying it will send more troops and contractors to aid the U.S. effort there.

Still, other serious issues loomed, most critically the efforts to bring North Korea back to the so-called six-party talks. Obama also reiterated his plan to hold direct talks with North Korea. U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth is scheduled to visit Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, next month in an effort to restart multilateral talks involving the United States, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

Analysts in South Korea described comments made by both countries on the looming threat of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s growing nuclear arsenal as “well couched.”

“They could not show their cards before the American envoy’s visit to Pyongyang,” said Chang Yong-seok, research director at the Institute of Peace Studies in Seoul.

North Korea conducted a nuclear test in May and later abrogated the 1953 cease-fire agreement that ended the Korean War.

Obama’s visit came barely a week after a naval skirmish heightened tensions between North and South -- highlighting the conservative Lee’s aggressive stance on North Korea.

On another matter, Obama expressed impatience with Iran during the news conference, saying he and U.S. allies were developing a package of sanctions that would be leveled against the country if it failed to accept a proposal curbing its nuclear program.

He was asked about a report that Iran had spurned the offer to relinquish its nuclear ambitions in return for assistance in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

“Iran has taken weeks now and has not shown its willingness to say yes to this proposal,” Obama said. “And I have not seen the report that you’re referring to today, but we’ve seen indications that, whether it’s for internal political reasons or because they are stuck in some of their own rhetoric, they have been unable to get to yes.”

Obama added that “our expectation is, is that over the next several weeks we will be developing a package of potential steps that we could take that will indicate our seriousness to Iran.” After the news conference, Axelrod rejected arguments that Obama had proved too accommodating -- particularly in dealings with China -- and failed to gain concessions on economic issues.

“We’re laying the foundation for progress. Whether it’s climate change, security issues, economic issues, the discussions that we had on this trip advanced our goals,” Axelrod said.

Polling shows Obama is popular in the region, Axelrod said, but “we didn’t have expectations that Barack Obama arrives in China or anywhere else and things change overnight.”

On the issue of the South Korean free-trade pact, Obama said Washington and Seoul were working to overcome obstacles that remained in the way of the agreement. In his major speech in Asia, delivered last weekend in Tokyo, Obama had pledged to “move forward” on the free-trade pact. But in a private meeting, Obama told the South Korean trade minister that “we have a lot of work to do,” according to the semiofficial Yonhap news agency.

The main sticking point has been autos. South Korea is a major exporter of cars to the U.S., but very few vehicles made in America are sold in South Korea, an imbalance that many analysts say is largely market driven and not a result of trade barriers.

Nonetheless, pressed by organized labor, key members of Congress in states such as Michigan and Ohio have blocked the trade agreement, insisting that additional measures and safeguards be put in place to boost American car shipments to South Korea.

During the news conference, Lee told Obama: “If the car [issue] is a problem, we are ready to talk again.”

The trade pact was negotiated in 2007 and would remove auto duties in both countries. But its potential effect is seen as much broader, as it addresses nontariff barriers on a wide range of goods and services, as well as containing strong provisions on intellectual property, labor, environment and regulatory processes.

South Korea is the United States’ seventh-largest trading partner, with two-way trade nearing $85 billion last year. Analysts have said that a free-trade pact between the two nations could lead to tens of thousands of additional jobs in the United States.

Obama and his economic team have said repeatedly that, in recovering from the financial crisis, the United States must build an economy that is more export-oriented.

“You know, all of these things require solid diplomacy, relationship building and discussions,” said Axelrod. “But we didn’t come halfway across the world for ticker-tape parades. We came here to lay a foundation for progress.

“We’ve done that. So we believe it was a successful trip.”

Times staff writer Don Lee in Washington and special correspondent Ju-min Park in Seoul contributed to this report.