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North Korea, Free Trade Likely to Dominate Obama's Korea Visit

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President Obama arrives in South Korea next week (November 18-19) as he wraps up his tour of Asia. Opening markets and dealing with North Korea's nuclear weapons are high on the agenda.

North Korea's nuclear weapons remain as much a concern for President Obama and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak now as when the two met in June.

Mr. Obama says his administration will talk one on one with Pyongyang, but only with the aim of bringing the North back to six-nation talks about scrapping its nuclear arsenal.

Yonsei University International Politics Professor Choi Jong-kun says Mr. Obama's presence in Seoul will send a strong signal to the North.

"Basically North Korea wants to have a direct talks with Washington, D.C., bypassing Seoul, [South] Korea, but regardless of that, if you show a very firm and cohesive gesture in the capital of South Korea, that will signal our alliance is strong and firm," he said.

Balbina Hwang, a Korea expert at the National Defense University in Washington, says Pyongyang may try to draw attention to itself during the Obama visit.

"It wouldn't surprise me if they chose at some point of President Obama being here on the peninsula or in the region, to set off another missile, claim another nuclear test of some sort, just because they want to divert the attention to them," she noted.

Hwang says ratifying a free trade deal between the two countries is likely to be another hot topic during Mr. Obama's visit. The agreement would open up markets in a wide range of products, including politically sensitive ones such as automobiles and rice.

Trade triggers strong emotions here in South Korea, where tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets last year, angry about U.S. beef imports.

That anger has faded. Scott Snyder, director of the Center for U.S-Korea Policy, says attitudes toward the U.S. and its new president have also warmed.

"We know from the public opinion polls that over 80 percent of Koreans have stated they trust Obama to deal with issues and foreign affairs," he said. "That is comparable to President Bush's 30 percent from a similar survey from the last year."

President Obama is scheduled to spend Wednesday and Thursday (November 18-19) in South Korea before flying home to Washington.