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“The Koreans, they can sell Kias and Hyundais here in the United States; I think that’s great,” Mr. Obama said at a town-hall meeting in Illinois in August. “I want to be selling Fords and Chryslers and Chevys in Korea. And I want products all across the world stamped with three words: ‘Made in America.’ “

To emphasize that point, Mr. Obama will take Mr. Lee on Friday to visit a General Motors plant in suburban Detroit, where both leaders will tout the free-trade agreement. But some analysts doubt that the accord will achieve Mr. Obama’s wish for more auto exports there, noting Koreans’ preference for domestic autos and the lack of a sales and marketing network for U.S. autos in South Korea.

Last year, Korean automakers exported 560,000 vehicles to the United States. American car companies exported only 7,450 vehicles to South Korea, or less than 1 percent of all cars sold in that country.

On another key issue, Mr. Obama and Mr. Lee are likely to present a united front but make little progress during this visit on persuading North Korea to return to six-nation talks aimed at nuclear disarmament. Mr. Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations said South Korea has taken more of the initiative, while the U.S. has been “a little bit behind.”

With Pyongyang apparently in the midst of a leadership transition from longtime dictator Kim Jong-il to his son, Kim Jong-un, outside powers have been unable to make much progress in diplomatic efforts to curb the North’s military and nuclear ambitions.

But there also are signs that the U.S. is picking up the pace. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton invited an official from North Korea in August for direct talks in New York. Then the U.S. offered disaster aid in response to severe flooding in North Korea.

“There’s a recognition [by the U.S. and South Korea] that they need to establish some sort of basis for discussion with North Korea without ceding too much,” Mr.Wakefieldof the Woodrow Wilson Center said. “They don’t want to offer North Korea anything new.”

Mr. Obama and Mr. Lee also will hold a joint news conference Thursday before the state dinner. The state dinner will be the fifth of Mr. Obama’s presidency, following events honoring the leaders of India, Mexico, China and Germany.