Ahead of a bilateral meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Obama said he was “mindful that my visit comes at a time of deep mourning for the people of this nation.”
The majority of those lost in the ferry disaster were high school students traveling to a resort island off the southern coast of South Korea.
Obama called for a moment of silence, and presented Park with the flag that was flown over the White House on the day the ship sank.
“In the United States, we have a tradition -- after the loss of our servicemembers and veterans, we present a flag in their honor to their loved ones,” Obama said.
“In that spirit, I'm presenting this American flag to you and the people of the Republic of Korea on behalf of the American people,” he continued. “It reflects our deep condolences, but also our solidarity with you during this difficult time, and our great pride in calling you an ally and a friend.”
At a joint press conference following their meeting, Obama said he was also donating a magnolia tree from the South Lawn of the White House to the school where the majority of the victims attended.
Obama said the tree represents “beauty, and every spring, renewal,” and noted his own daughters were the same age as some of the teenagers lost in the disaster.
“I can only imagine what the parents are going through at this point,” Obama said.
During his visit, the president also took part in a formal ceremony to return nine ancient seals that had been removed from Korea by an American marine during the Korean War.
"These are historic seals that were part of the monarchy here in Korea." Obama said.
"During the war, a Marine found them and took them home as a memento," he continued. "I don't think he fully appreciate their historic significance."
Park thanked Obama for returning "these very precious and historic artifacts."