Israeli president visits SKorea amid concerns over possible diplomatic backlash

By Sangwon Yoon, AP
Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Israeli president visits SKorea amid Gaza uproar

SEOUL, South Korea — Israeli President Shimon Peres arrived in Seoul on Tuesday for a working-level summit amid concerns the visit’s timing could negatively affect South Korea’s diplomatic efforts to censure North Korea at the United Nations.

Seoul appealed to the U.N. Security Council on Friday to punish Pyongyang, accusing its nuclear-armed neighbor of blowing apart one of its warships with a torpedo, killing 46 sailors. It was the first time Seoul has taken Pyongyang to the Security Council over an inter-Korean dispute, despite a history of being attacked by the North.

South Korea has been working to garner international backing for the diplomatic action. Israel, meanwhile, has come under intense international criticism for its raid on a ship carrying aid to Hamas-ruled Gaza that killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American. Israel claims its troops acted in self-defense.

South Korean media reports have voiced worry over possibly risking its diplomatic effort against North Korea at the U.N. by hosting Peres and potentially being seen as favoring Israel.

Government officials hesitated to hold the summit amid growing international criticism of Israel, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Monday, citing unnamed officials at the presidential Blue House. Cho Hyun-jin, a presidential spokesman, declined to comment.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Sunday on its Web site that the South Korean government “lowered the status” of Peres’ trip from an official “state visit” to a routine “working visit” because of “international pressure in the wake of Israel’s deadly raid” on the Gaza-bound flotilla. The report did not cite any sources.

Peres’ office strongly denied the claim, saying that the planned trip was originally meant as a working visit. A South Korean Foreign Ministry official backed up that view, saying the trip was never intended to be a state visit. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.

Peres will meet South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Thursday, according to the Blue House.

They will discuss “the political relationship between the two countries and the potential for increased economic and technological cooperation,” Peres’ office said. Peres will also tour several South Korean research and development centers.

Peres had been scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate at Korea University and deliver a speech there during his trip, but both events were canceled, the South Korean Foreign Ministry official said. Ministry spokesman Kim Young-sun said Israeli Embassy officials in Seoul had pushed for the two events to take place, but they later gave up on the plan. He provided no reason.

South Korea’s official position on the raid has been one of “regret for the loss of life during the incident,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement on June 1. Seoul has called for negotiations through dialogue “as it is the only solution toward peace in the region.”

In a reflection of sensitivities over the issue, Vietnam asked Peres to put off a scheduled working visit this week.

Israeli forces rappelled from helicopters onto six vessels in an international aid flotilla on May 31 to prevent them from breaking an Israeli blockade of Gaza, imposed in 2007 after Hamas overran the territory. Violence broke out on one of the ships, with video footage from the Israeli military and Turkish TV showing passengers with metal bars attacking Israeli soldiers descending on ropes onto a Turkish ship.

Israel claims its troops acted in self-defense against the attackers. A preliminary autopsy report released by Turkey on Saturday said the nine men killed were shot a total of 30 times.

Kim, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Peres’ trip to South Korea was decided before the incident.

Associated Press writers Aron Heller in Jerusalem and Kwang-tae Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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