SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Less than an hour after arriving in South Korea, President Barack Obama solemnly laid a wreath at a memorial honoring Americans killed in the Korean War. On Saturday, he'll speak to some of the 28,000 American service members stationed here and hold a rare joint security briefing with South Korea's president.
Obama's itinerary is aimed at showcasing the U.S. military's deep ties to the region at a time when Asia is warily watching China's growing military prowess and North Korea's unpredictable nuclear efforts.
"Obviously we come here at a time when there has been provocative language from North Korea, and it's important for us to show complete solidarity with our ally, the Republic of Korea, in standing up to those provocations," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser.
Obama arrived in South Korea on Friday, the second stop on his four-country swing through Asia. After events in Seoul on Saturday, the president will travel to Malaysia, where he'll attend a dinner with the royal family.
Even as Obama pressed his security agenda in South Korea, he 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 Seoul.
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. Obama spoke by telephone with European leaders to discuss the possibility of deepening economic sanctions on Russia, though it appeared unlikely that new penalties would be imposed on Friday.
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 U.S. has long been the most powerful military influence in the Asia-Pacific region, Pentagon spending is being slashed at the same time China has been boosting its defense budget.
Beijing still lags far behind the U.S. in both military funding and technology. But its spending boom is attracting new scrutiny at a time of severe cuts in U.S. defense budgets 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. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert 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. Obama on Friday declared the alliance between the U.S. and South Korea "a linchpin of security in Asia."
"Our solidarity is bolstered by the courage of our service members, both Korean and American, who safeguard this nation," Obama said during a news conference Friday with South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
Ahead of his meetings with Park, 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.
Obama will speak Saturday at Yongsan Garrison, headquarters for U.S. forces in South Korea. Before his remarks, Obama and 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. Obama and Park both warned Friday that the launch could lead to tougher sanctions, with Park also declaring that it could trigger an undesirable nuclear arms race in the region and render further nuclear negotiations pointless.
The website 38 North, which closely monitors North Korea, said commercial satellite imagery from Wednesday showed increased movement of vehicles and materials near what are believed to be the entrances to two completed tunnels at Punggye-ri nuclear test site. The movements could be preparations for an underground atomic explosion, although predicting underground tests is notoriously difficult.
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Seoul and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC