- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2008

SEOUL — South Korea’s conservative new president, Lee Myung-bak, was to begin a five-day trip to the United States yesterday with a pledge to “open a new era of pragmatic diplomacy.”

His typically packed schedule — he has reportedly exhausted aides with his dawn-to-dusk workdays — began with his arrival in New York late yesterday.

It will include an investor-relations session, a visit to the New York Stock Exchange and a meeting with Korean-born U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday.

The Washington leg of his visit begins late today and climaxes with an overnight stay at Camp David with President Bush this weekend.

Mr. Lee is expected to discuss the North Korea nuclear issue, the pending bilateral free-trade agreement, the cost-sharing burden of U.S. forces, ongoing relocations on the peninsula and a possible redeployment of South Korean troops to Afghanistan.

U.S. beef imports remain a contentious issue. South Korea was the third-largest foreign market for U.S. beef until American imports were banned following a mad cow disease outbreak in 2003.

Seoul’s stance infuriates U.S. cattlemen. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, has vowed not to pass the free-trade agreement, which was signed last year but still awaits ratification in both nations’ legislatures, until the beef issue is resolved.

Both Mr. Lee and his Grand National Party seek early ratification of the agreement.

A senior official said the opening of the beef market would bring “tremendous political pressure” — farmers are a powerful and vocal lobby in Seoul.

However, he added, the two presidents would “discuss an amicable and acceptable resolution to this issue.”

“This visit, two months into his term, symbolizes how important the Korea-U.S. alliance and Japan are,” said Kim Ki-jong, a political science professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.

“Maybe President Lee is focusing on reinforcement of the Korea-U.S. alliance based on his perception that during the last five years, relations have been weakened by [former President] Roh Moo-hyun’s anti-American sentiment,” he said.

Mr. Lee plans to visit Japan next week.

Under the left-leaning Roh administration, ties with Washington were frayed over North Korean policy, while relations with Tokyo suffered over historical and territorial disputes involving a Korean-occupied island in the Sea of Japan.

While in Japan on Sunday and Monday, Mr. Lee will meet Emperor Akihito and hold a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.

As a student, Mr. Lee was imprisoned for anti-Japanese protests in 1964, but now stresses the importance of improving ties with the country, which analysts consider a natural democratic ally of South Korea in Northeast Asia, a region that encompasses communist China and North Korea.

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