U.S. President Barack Obama and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called on North Korea on Thursday to return to stalled nuclear talks and end its atomic ambitions in return for massive economic aid.
"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 after talks with Obama according to a prepared text.
Obama, who arrived in Asia last week and flies home later in the day, and Lee have been putting pressure on the North by targeting its finances and telling Pyongyang it will win the money it needs to fix its broken economy and better global standing if it scraps its nuclear arms program.
Obama says his envoy on North Korea will travel to the country early next month for the first bilateral talks with the communist regime since he took office.
Obama said at a joint news conference in Seoul that Ambassador Stephen Bosworth will go to Pyongyang on Dec. 8.
North Korea has been pushing for bilateral talks with Washington to discuss the standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program. The U.S. has agreed to the talks but has stressed they must lead to the resumption of six-nation disarmament negotiations.
North Korea conducted a nuclear test and test-fired a series of missiles earlier this year.
North Korea stoked regional tension ahead of Obama's first tour of Asia since taking office, engaging a naval firefight with the South and declaring it had produced a fresh batch of arms-grade plutonium.
Earlier Thursday, Obama joined Lee at the Blue House, South Korea's version of the White House, where the U.S. leader took in spectacular views of the hills of Seoul on a chilly, gray morning. Obama stood on red-carpeted steps and looked out on military regiments in colorful garb and flag-waving children.
North Korea was at the top of the agenda when the two leaders met.
"They will be strongly pressing for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, but simultaneously letting the state know it has much to gain if it does," said Chung Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul.
The Obama administration plans to send its first envoy to North Korea in the next few weeks to revive stalled six-way talks on ending the North's nuclear ambitions in return for massive aid to repair its failed economy and better global standing for the largely ostracized state.
The U.S. and South Korea want at a minimum for North Korea to return to a six-way agreement struck in 2005, to resume disabling its aging Yongbyon nuclear plant and to allow inspectors to verify claims it made about its atomic arsenal.
The visit to South Korea comes at the end of Obama's eight-day, four-country Asia tour. One area of conflict may be a trade deal struck two years ago under President George W. Bush and yet to be approved by legislatures in either country. Estimates said it could increase their $83 billion a year in two-way trade by about $20 billion.
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. But Seoul has left the door open for discussions for side deals on areas such as the auto trade.
South Korea removed a potential source of friction by saying it 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.
Taking in the Great Wall
Before heading to South Korea, Obama absorbed history's expanse Wednesday with a visit to the Great Wall of China.
"It's magical," Obama said, walking down a ramp alone, his hands in his pockets. "It reminds you of the sweep of history and our time here on earth is not that long. We better make the best of it."
A must-see for presidents from President Richard Nixon on, the Great Wall was one of Obama's major sightseeing stops during his diplomatic tour of Asia.
Dressed in a winter jacket against a biting wind at the Great Wall, Obama led a knot of people for a half-hour jaunt up the crenelated wall toward a watchtower, a restored section originally built 500 years ago.
Obama walked down the last ramp by himself in a choreographed moment for photographers. White House aides were exultant afterward that "the shot" they had planned turned out perfectly.
The earliest sections of the wall were built more than 2,000 years ago. From the portion where Obama stood, the mountainside vistas were majestic.
Obama's tourism breaks at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City's former imperial palaces on Tuesday were the only diversions on an eight-day Asia trip meant to show U.S. re-engagement with the region.
Obama sought to reassure allies in Japan and Southeast Asia — a mission he was continuing in South Korea later Wednesday. In China, he tried to lend positive momentum to relations with the new world power and potential rival.
Stops at landmark tourist sites used to be — and often still are — compulsory for foreign dignitaries visiting China. Nixon's foreign affairs strategist Henry Kissinger suspected his Chinese hosts scheduled sightseeing to drag out his time — and perhaps drag out concessions.
History matters to the Chinese, who take pride in being heirs to a civilization of 4,000-plus years and believe the past offers insights into their present.
The head of China's legislature, Wu Bangguo, told Obama on Monday, "In China, there is a saying that if you want to appreciate the history of China in the past 100 years, go to Shanghai; in the past 1,000 years, come to Beijing; and for the past 2,000 years, go to Xi'an" — the imperial capital of China's first emperor and later dynasties.
Obama replied that he was impressed with the dynamism of Shanghai, where he held a town hall-style meeting with Chinese youth Monday and which, he said, is "a sign of China's emergence as a great economic power." His rapid 30-minute run through the vast Forbidden City on Tuesday was "a reminder of the incredible traditions and heritage of the Chinese people."
In an interview Wednesday with NBC's Chuck Todd, Obama said that as China sees greater economic freedom, then political freedom will follow.
"I think that what you're going to see is a steady improvement and it's critical for the United States to be clear about for what we stand for, why we consider things like freedom of expression, freedom of religion to be universal rights," he said.
"And if we do that, then I'm pretty confident that whatever the day to day strategies of the Chinese government may be that freedom ultimately will win out."