SEOUL, South Korea -- President Barack Obama was touting economic and military ties to South Korea today, a show of U.S. influence in the region amid China's growing power and nuclear threats from North Korea.
Mr. Obama kicked off the second day of his overnight trip to Seoul in a meeting with business leaders aimed at promoting trade between the two nations. The remainder of his day focused on military matters, with a speech to some of the 28,000 U.S. service members stationed here and a rare joint security briefing with South Korea's president.
Mr. Obama told more than a dozen corporate executives gathered in a conference room at the Grand Hyatt, where he spent the night, that the United States and South Korea are going to have "one of the key economic relationships of the 21st century." The executives represented businesses including Hyundai, Samsung, Korean Air, Microsoft, Boeing, Goldman Sachs and others.
"As important as the security relationship is and the alliance is between the Republic of Korea and the United States, what is also important is the incredible and growing economic ties that are creating jobs and opportunity in both countries," the U.S. president said.
Mr. Obama arrived Friday in South Korea, the second stop on his four-country swing through Asia. After events today in Seoul, the president will travel to Malaysia, where he will attend a dinner with the royal family.
While in Seoul, Mr. Obama paid tribute to victims from last week's ferry disaster. The vast majority of the 300 dead or missing were students from a single high school near the capital city.
The president also has had to attend to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, as a fragile accord with Russia aimed at stemming tensions appears to have crumbled. Mr. Obama spoke by phone with European leaders to discuss the possibility of deepening economic sanctions on Russia.
Despite the distractions of other issues, the president's core mission in Seoul is to underscore the U.S. commitment to the security of South Korea and other allies during a period of uncertainty in the region. While the United States has long been the most powerful military influence in the Asia-Pacific region, Pentagon spending is being slashed at the same time that China has been boosting its defense budget.
Beijing still lags far behind the United States in both military funding and technology. But its spending boom is attracting new scrutiny at a time of severe cuts in the U.S. defense budget that have some questioning Washington's commitments to its Asian allies, including some who have lingering disputes with China.
At the same time, the U.S. military is seeking to redirect resources to the Asia-Pacific as it draws down its commitment in Afghanistan, though there is concern that budget cuts could threaten plans to base 60 percent of U.S. naval assets in the region. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, recently warned that U.S. capabilities to project power "would not stay ahead" of potential adversaries, given the fiscal restraints.
The U.S. military continues to have a robust presence in South Korea, in part to serve as a deterrent to the North. Mr. Obama on Friday declared the alliance between the United States and South Korea "a linchpin of security in Asia." During a news conference Friday with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, he said, "Our solidarity is bolstered by the courage of our service members, both Korean and American, who safeguard this nation."
Ahead of his meetings with Ms. Park, Mr. Obama paid tribute to U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War. He placed a wreath beside a plaque bearing the names of some of those killed as a bugler played out taps.
Mr. Obama will speak today at Yongsan Garrison, headquarters for U.S. forces in South Korea. Before his remarks, Mr. Obama and Ms. Park will have a rare joint leaders briefing with the commander of the U.S-South Korea Combined Forces Command.
Both countries are closely watching North Korea, which has threatened to conduct its fourth nuclear test.