TOKYO — When President Barack Obama arrives in South Korea today, 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.
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."
Throughout his five years as president, Obama has been called upon frequently to offer reassurance after 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 he has mourned the loss of life in violence at that military base.
Obama will arrive in South Korea this afternoon, local time, from Japan, where he was feted during an official state visit and attended meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The president's overnight stay in Seoul is the second stop on a four-country Asia swing that also includes Malaysia and the Philippines.