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Ferry disaster, nuclear test fears cloud Obama’s South Korea trip

AFP / Barack Obama tours Seoul's Gyeongbok Palace

US President Barack Obama arrived in grief-stricken South Korea on Friday for a two-day visit overshadowed by last week’s ferry disaster and fears Seoul’s northern neighbour may be preparing another nuclear test.


The American president landed at a US Air Force base outside the South Korean capital on the second leg of a four-nation tour of Asia, which began in Tokyo and includes further stops in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Obama is expected to offer personal condolences to his counterpart Park Geun-hye over the sinking of a ferry full of schoolchildren on April 16, which has left South Korea in a state of national mourning.

More than 300 people are dead or missing after the disaster, most of them students from a high school near Seoul.

"Trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership also on the agenda"

In an interview published Friday by the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, Obama noted that US military forces were involved in the search and rescue effort in the ferry sinking and that his visit to South Korea “will be an opportunity to express the sympathy of the American people”.

“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,” he said.

The president's trip comes at a sensitive point in the ferry recovery mission, as officials weigh when to bring in cranes and begin cutting up and raising the submerged vessel.

More than 140 people are still unaccounted for.

The disaster has outraged many in South Korea. Most of the ferry's 29-member crew survived, and 11, including the captain, have been arrested or detained in connection with the investigation.

President Park Geun-hye has described the actions by some of the crew as “tantamount to murder”.

'Irresponsible' North

The tragedy has consumed the South Korean president in the lead-up to Obama's visit and could distract from the security and economic agenda she had been expected to highlight during her meetings with the US president.

White House officials said Obama did not plan to change his schedule in South Korea as a result of the disaster, with North Korea’s nuclear provocations still expected to dominate the agenda.

Speaking in Tokyo on Thursday, the US president urged China to rein in its wayward ally, saying Beijing had a "critically important" role to play in defusing tensions on the volatile peninsula.

"North Korea has engaged in provocative actions for the last several decades," he said. "It's been an irresponsible actor on the international stage for the last several decades.”

Obama’s warning comes amid growing fears the regime in Pyongyang may conduct another nuclear test to coincide with the US president’s two-day visit to the South.

According to the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, satellite photos taken just two days ago showed additional activity at North Korea's Punggye-ri test site that is "probably related to preparations for a detonation".

North Korea watchers have puzzled over whether the test preparations they have seen via spy satellites are real, or bravado aimed at stealing the limelight during the US president's tour.

But the latest images suggested increased movement of vehicles and materials near what are believed to be the entrances to two completed test tunnels, the US-Korea institute said on its closely followed 38 North website.

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.

Earlier this week, officials in Pyongyang slammed Obama's trip as a "dangerous" move that would escalate military tension and bring the "dark clouds of a nuclear arms race" over the Korean peninsula.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)

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