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September 1, 2014

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Obama visit to South Korea tinged by mourning

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AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

President Barack Obama, right, salutes with Col. Brook J. Leonard, commander of 51st Fighter Wing, left, upon his arrival for two-day visit at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, South Korea, Friday, April 25, 2014.

SEOUL, South Korea — President Barack Obama is sitting down with South Korea's President Park Geun-hye, whose attention is unavoidably split between her economic agenda with Obama and the unfolding aftermath of a tragic ferry disaster.

Obama was due at the Blue House, the South Korean equivalent of the White House, on Friday for a busy evening of meetings with Park, including a working dinner and a news conference. The visit is Obama's first to Seoul since Park became the key U.S. ally's first female president, but Park has been consumed for more than a week by the sunken ferry, a dark episode that keeps getting worse as divers discover more bodies.

The vast majority of the 300 dead or missing victims attended a high school near the capital of Seoul. Most of the ferry's 29-person crew survived, but 11, including the captain, have been arrested on suspicion of negligence or abandoning people in need as the ferry sank. Park recently blasted their actions as "tantamount to murder."

"When our friends are in trouble, America helps, and we'll continue to do everything we can to stand with our Korean friends at this difficult time," Obama said in an interview published Friday by the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo.

After arriving here Friday afternoon, Obama headed first to the National War Memorial, where he laid a wreath in honor of victims of the Korean War and led a naturalization ceremony for 20 military service members and their spouses from 14 countries. He used the occasion to call for a comprehensive immigration overhaul in the U.S., saying he's going to "keep pushing to get this done this year."

Obama's motorcade later rolled through downtown Seoul, past a stream lined with yellow ribbons in honor of the ferry victims. He arrived at the Gyeongbok Palace, a sprawling compound with an imposing pagoda-like structure in the center where the president got a tour.

In the written interview, Obama acknowledged that he is arriving at a difficult time for the country but said the visit will give him a chance to express the American people's sympathies. He noted that U.S. military personnel, who number about 28,500 in South Korea, are part of the search and rescue operation.

White House officials said Obama did not plan to alter his itinerary in South Korea because of the disaster, but would probably soften warnings he had been expected to deliver about North Korea and tensions in the region with words of condolence for the ferry victims and the South Korean people.

Still, concerns about North Korea and its nuclear program were not far from the forefront.

Pyongyang threatened last month to conduct a fourth nuclear test, possibly while Obama is in the region. The White House said it was keeping close tabs on activity at the North's nuclear test site, where commercial satellite imagery this week showed increased activity, although not enough to suggest that an underground atomic explosion was imminent.

Obama told the South Korean newspaper that another test would gain North Korea "absolutely nothing" but deeper isolation from the world. He said such a test would meet a "firm response" from the international community, without specifying the response. Obama added that the U.S. is committed to defending its allies, including South Korea.

Obama will also renew his plea for countries in the region to de-escalate multiple territorial disputes with China, officials said. Seoul's key concern is about an area in the East China Sea that is effectively controlled by South Korea but falls within a controversial air defense zone that China created last year.

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