News / Asia

Trade, North Korea Among Topics in Obama, Lee Talks

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks during a lunch hosted in Washington by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Oct. 12, 2011
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks during a lunch hosted in Washington by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Oct. 12, 2011

President Barack Obama welcomes South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to the White House on Thursday.  The visit comes as the U.S. Congress moved to approve a long-delayed U.S. - South Korea free trade agreement, and as both countries face ongoing challenges with North Korea.

From complex bilateral trade issues, to ongoing tensions with North Korea, the Obama-Lee relationship has endured major challenges during the past two years.

The United States stood strongly by its key East Asian ally against belligerent behavior by North Korea after the sinking of a South Korean warship, denied by Pyongyang, and the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010.

On trade, the two men weathered a difficult process of bilateral negotiations, and political obstacles. On the eve of Mr. Lee's visit, the U.S. Congress was on the verge of approving the U.S.-Korea free-trade deal with its benefits for increased trade and jobs.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney:

"It comes at a time that is really a high point in the bilateral relationship and in our alliance with South Korea," said Carney. "And it marks an alliance that has matured over the last two years into a partnership, building peace and prosperity globally."

National Security Council former director for Asian affairs, Victor Cha, who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the two presidents have excellent personal chemistry.  More importantly, he says, President Lee has delivered on key aspects of Mr. Obama's global agenda.

"South Korea really sort of stepped up, which is part of Lee’s agenda for Korea to be more of a global player at a time when the United States wanted to see allies like Korea stepping up," said Cha.

Former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council Michael Green agrees the visit reflects the importance Mr. Obama places on President Lee's leadership.

"I think that this is a relationship based on respect and the fact that Lee Myung-bak can deliver, but nevertheless, that counts for a lot, and you can see it in the protocol that surrounds this visit," said Green.

Thursday's pomp and circumstance will include a full White House ceremonial welcome, a joint news conference and state dinner.  President Lee will also address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.

Former assistant U.S. trade representative Meredith Broadbent says President Lee's White House provided a final push for the White House and Congress to finally end a deadlock on the Korea trade pact.

"The agreement between the U.S. and Korea is a win-win, state-of-the-art, sound commercial agreement that will put transparent rules in place, allow fairness and accountability for U.S. business in Korea, and get us back into the game of negotiating trade agreements, which our trading partners have been doing during these years that we have been more focused inward," said Broadbent.

The two presidents will also discuss North Korea, and a possible new round of bilateral talks with Pyongyang after President Lee's visit to Washington.  Again, Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

"One of the main issues that the two leaders are going to want to talk about is how to contain this crisis and avoid more provocations by the DPRK [North Korea] even as they continue to put their nose to the grindstone and try to make more progress on the denuclearization aspect of the talks," he said.

On Friday, President Lee is to accompany President Obama on a visit to a General Motors assembly plant near Detroit, Michigan.

In promoting his job creation and innovation policies, President Obama has often used South Korea as an example of the kind of global economic competition the U.S. faces and the importance of a level playing field in trade.

The White House says the visit to the auto plant will highlight the Korea trade deal and the potential it creates for American companies to sell more of their products in foreign markets.

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