Ferry disaster thrusts Obama into consoler role during his visit to South Korea on Asia tour

The Associated Press

U.S. President Barack Obama stands in front of a large model of the Earth as he attends a youth science event at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, known as the Miraikan, in Tokyo on Thursday, April 24, 2014. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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By JULIE PACE, AP White House Correspondent

TOKYO (AP) — When President Barack Obama arrives in South Korea on Friday, he will be thrust anew into the role of consoler in chief in a time of crisis, a responsibility he has become all too accustomed to in the United States.

South Korea is reeling from the ferry disaster that has left more than 300 dead or missing, with the vast majority of the victims students from a high school near the capital of Seoul. The tragedy has consumed South Korean President Park Geun-hye 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 U.S. president.

Another world issue is shadowing Obama on his four-nation Asia trip: the crisis in Ukraine. In Tokyo on Thursday, the president said at a news conference that the U.S. has a new round of economic sanctions against Russia "teed up" if the Russians provoke further instability in Ukraine.

White House officials said Obama did not plan to change his schedule in South Korea as a result of the disaster. But the president probably will balance his expected statements — warnings against North Korean nuclear provocations and calls to lower tensions in regional territorial disputes — with words of condolence for the ferry victims and the people of South Korea.

Ahead of his trip, Obama said he planned to reaffirm that "our commitment to South Korea is unwavering in good times and in bad."

The president's trip will come 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 April 16 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. Park, the South Korean president, said the actions by some of the crew were "tantamount to murder."

Throughout his five years as president, Obama has been called upon frequently to offer reassurance following natural disasters and other tragedies at home, including twice just this month. On his way to Asia, Obama met with families of the more than three dozen people who perished in a mudslide in Washington state. And in mid-April, he spoke at a memorial service for three victims of shootings at Fort Hood, Texas — the second time the president has mourned the loss of life in violence at that military base.

Obama will arrive in South Korea Friday afternoon, local time, from Japan, where he was feted during an official state visit and attended meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In the hours before Obama's departure from Tokyo, negotiators from the U.S. and Japan were still trying to hammer out differences on a stalled trans-Pacific trade partnership in the hopes they could announce progress before Air Force One took off.

The president's overnight stay in Seoul is the second stop on a four-country Asia swing that also includes visits to Malaysia and the Philippines.

The president has been serving as something of a mediator between Japan and South Korea, two U.S. allies with strained relations due to Seoul's lingering resentment over Japanese actions during World War II. In March, Obama hosted a trilateral meeting with Abe and Park on the sidelines of a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands, and he has been expected to follow up on that discussion in his individual talks with both leaders this week.

In addition to a meeting and news conference with Park, Obama will also participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at a memorial to the victims of South Korea's many wars, and he will visit the Gyeongbok Palace. On Friday, he'll receive a military briefing from U.S. officials at Yongsang Garrison, then speak to American troops stationed in the region.