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Obama, South Korea's Lee Urge North To End Provocation


U.S. President Barack Obama greets U.S. troops during a rally at Osan Air Base, south of Seoul, today.
SEOUL (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama and his South Korean counterpart pressed North Korea today to return to dormant nuclear talks and said it was time for the reclusive state to break a pattern of provocative behavior.

Obama and President Lee Myung-bak also agreed to push for progress on approving a bilateral free trade deal that has yet to be ratified by legislatures in either country two years after it was signed.

"The thing I want to emphasise is that President Lee and I both agree we want to break the pattern that existed in the past, in which North Korea behaves in a provocative fashion, and then is willing to return to talk...and then that leads to seeking further concessions," Obama said.

Lee, standing beside Obama at a news conference after their bilateral meeting in Seoul, said that North Korea could hope for massive economic aid if it renounces its nuclear arms ambitions.

"I hope that by accepting our proposal, the North will secure safety for itself, improve the quality of life for its people, and open the path to a new future," Lee said.

North Korea rattled regional security just ahead of Obama's first visit to Seoul since taking office by sparking a naval fight with the South and telling the world early this month it had produced a fresh batch of arms-grade plutonium.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan have cranked up pressure on the destitute North by squeezing lines of finance to get it back to six-country negotiations on its nuclear program.

Obama said the door was open for resolving the nuclear standoff and a special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, would go to Pyongyang on December 8 for talks, but Washington was determined not to distracted by "side issues" thrown up by North Korea.

Lee Signals Movement

Obama flies home later in the day after perhaps the least problematic leg of a weeklong Asia trip that included China, where he barely bridged divides on trade, currency policy, and Tibet.

Thousands of cheering South Koreans lined the streets of downtown Seoul as Obama's motorcade drove by, unlike in China where there was little popular excitement over his visit.

The thorniest issue between Washington and Seoul is their free trade agreement, which analysts say could increase their annual two-way trade by about $20 billion from $83 billion now.

"President Obama and I once again confirmed the economic and strategic importance of the free-trade agreement between our countries and agreed to work on its progress," Lee said.

South Korea insists it will not renegotiate the deal, the biggest trade pact for the United States since the NAFTA accord of the mid-1990s with its immediate neighbors.

Autos have been a sticking point in U.S. Congress ratification of the free trade pact, but Lee said his country was willing to reopen discussions on this sector to get it moving.

"If automobiles are a problem, we are in a position to discuss them again," he said.

South Korea removed a potential source of friction by saying at the end of October it would dispatch a security contingent of police and troops to Afghanistan to help support the U.S.-led mission there.