US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met South Korean officials Saturday to coordinate their next move on the communist North, while promising Seoul that a long delayed trade deal was almost sealed.

Believing that any negotiations would be counter-productive unless South Korea is on board, US officials said they were largely deferring to President Lee Myung-Bak over when to re-engage North Korea.

Clinton, on an overnight visit to the close ally before flying Sunday to earthquake-hit Japan, met South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan, who praised the US emphasis on inter-Korean dialogue when handling North Korea.

“I expect steady and close cooperation aimed at solving the North Korean nuclear issue,” he said as he opened talks.

Clinton predicted movement on a key issue for the South Korean government — a free trade agreement with the US that was first sealed in 2007 but has yet to be ratified by the two countries’ legislatures.

“I’m very encouraged and determined about the passage of the free trade agreement,” she said. “I’m very confident that there will be a positive outcome that will benefit both of our countries.”

The agreement, which will remove 95 percent of tariffs between the two economies, has been controversial in both countries, with the main US union confederation saying that big businesses would be the main beneficiary.

But President Barack Obama’s administration last year won over many holdouts within his camp when South Korea agreed to revisions, including slowing down the elimination of US tariffs on car imports.

Clinton’s visit to Seoul comes amid a renewal of diplomatic activity over North Korea. Former US president Jimmy Carter, an advocate of reaching out to Pyongyang, is expected to visit later this month with fellow elder statesmen.

Obama took office with a goal of reaching out even to US adversaries. But he has taken a hard line on North Korea, which carried out nuclear and missile tests in 2009, just months into the new US administration.

North Korea last year also shelled a civilian-populated island in South Korea and was blamed for the sinking of the South’s Cheonan warship — leading the United States to urge North Korea repeatedly to “cease provocations.”

North Korea, with support from China, has called for a resumption of six-nation talks — which also involve Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States — on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

The United States has said it is ready to hold talks eventually but first wants Kim Jong-Il’s regime to commit clearly to 2005 and 2007 agreements at the six-way talks, under which it agreed to disarm in return for aid.

Western aid groups which visited North Korea this year said that it is again in dire need of food assistance. The impoverished country suffered a famine in the late 1990s that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

But the Obama administration is seeking a fuller accounting of North Korea’s needs. Some US officials and lawmakers fear that North Korea may be seeking aid to bolster celebrations next year marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il-Sung.

Despite the public hard line, the United States may be obliged to pursue diplomacy once again with North Korea to free a US citizen arrested after crossing into the tightly controlled country.

The United States has in the past sent former presidents, including Carter and Bill Clinton, to win the release of Americans held in North Korea while insisting that such efforts were a one-off and not part of a broader outreach.

In Japan, Clinton will meet Prime Minister Naoto Kan and have tea with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, an unusual Sunday function for the Imperial Palace.

The United States, which stations 47,000 troops in Japan, launched a round-the-clock military effort dubbed “Operation Tomodachi,” or “friend,” to ferry supplies to the tsunami-devastated northeastern coast.

The disaster has temporarily cast aside disputes between Japan and the United States, including over the location of a Marine base that has been unpopular with some residents of the southern island of Okinawa.



South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-Hwan (L) shakes hands with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prior to a meeting at the Foreign Minister’s Residence in Seoul. Clinton met South Korean officials Saturday to coordinate their next move on the communist North, while promising Seoul that a long delayed trade deal was almost sealed.

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