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Obama travels to South Korea on second leg of Asia tour

US President Barack Obama has arrived in South Korea to meet with his counterpart, Park Geun-hye. Domestic and diplomatic troubles plaguing Seoul are expected to influence the highly anticipated talks.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama traveled to South Korea on the second leg of his Asia tour. He was scheduled to meet with President Park Geun-hye at the Blue House, where the two leaders planned to hold a joint press conference.

The US president's Asia tour comes at a difficult time for South Korea. Not only has the Park administration been grappling with

a tragic ferry disaster that claimed hundreds of lives

, but it also faces a cross-section of diplomatic tensions with its immediate neighbors.

North Korea's nuclear threats are to dominate security talks

, with Obama and Park planning to discuss diplomatic solutions to Pyongyang's atomic weapon program. Last month, North Korea warned that it would not rule out "a new form" of nuclear test. The threat came in response to the UN Security Council's condemnation of its testing of ballistic missiles.

China also poses both economic and military threats to South Korea, with its growing economy and efforts to gain control over disputed land, sea and air. Officials in South Korea and other countries have expressed concerns over land in the East China Sea that falls under a newly declared Chinese air defense zone.

To South Korea's east, the

Japan's prime minister has reignited lingering anger over his country's actions during World War II

by visiting a controversial shrine late last year.

Obama is to travel to Malaysia and the Philippines after completing his visit to South Korea on Saturday.

Progress in Japan

Obama's visit follows successful meetings with Japanese officials in Tokyo. Though the two governments could not finalize a trade agreement, Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari confirmed that progress had been made.

"This time we can't say there's been a basic agreement," Amari told reporters after a second day of almost round-the-clock talks. "Overall, the gaps are steadily narrowing."

Finalizing an agreement during Obama's state visit was always considered a somewhat ambitious target, considering Washington's reservations on automobile sector tariffs and Japan's reticence with regards to agricultural produce such as beef and rice. The trade talks were set to continue at the ministerial level.

The Reuters news agency quoted a high-ranking US source as saying that the negotiators had made a key breakthrough on the two sticking points, one that would also benefit broader talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe issued a joint statement shortly before the US president's departure. This document also confirmed that the countries' bilateral defense pact would cover the disputed Senkaku islands - also claimed by China, which calls the islands Diayou - in the event of their coming under attack. Obama had made this pledge on Thursday in Tokyo, but also said the US would take no firm stance on the sovereignty dispute itself. He said that Washington believed the dispute could be solved diplomatically.

Friday's joint statement reaffirmed interest in building and improving ties with China.

kms, msh/mkg (AP, dpa, AFP, Reuters)

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