South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak arrived in Washington on Tuesday evening for a five-day U.S. visit that gives President Obama the opportunity to showcase both a strong personal alliance with a key East Asian ally and some rare good news on the economic front.
Mr. Lee arrived as lawmakers on Capitol Hill were moving quickly to break the logjam on a long-stalled free-trade bill with Seoul. Underscoring South Korea’s rising prominence in the global economy, he will address top U.S. business leaders and a joint session of Congress, and be the guest of honor for the fifth state dinner of Mr. Obama’s presidency on Thursday evening.
“South Korea has played a more prominent role with American calculations in Asia,” said Bryce Wakefield, an analyst on the region at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. He said the state dinner “is recognition of the extent to which American leaders are willing to go out of their way” to foster the alliance.
Some Asia analysts say that South Korea has emerged during Mr. Lee’s presidency as a sturdier U.S. ally that rivals America’s relationship with Japan, which has been sidetracked by domestic political strife and natural disasters. South Korea hosted a Group of 20 summit in November 2010, and its economy has weathered the global financial crisis relatively well.
With the U.S. economy struggling and Mr. Obama’s political fortunes on the downswing, the visit “will provide a brief but welcome respite from the turmoil of Washington politics and mark a major success in the administrations Asia policy,” said Evans J.R. Revere, a senior fellow and Northeast Asian policy specialist at the Brookings Institution.
The other undeniable aspect of the bond between the two governments is that Mr. Lee and Mr. Obama just plain get along.
“Among Asian leaders, President Lee is the one who has clicked best with President Obama,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Noting that Mr. Lee’s term will end early in 2013, he added, “In many respects, this is a valedictory visit.”
Said Mr. Wakefield of the South Korean leader, “He’s very much a straightforward guy. What you see is what you get.”
The House on Tuesday began debate on free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, with the South Korean deal having by far the biggest potential payoff for U.S. exporters. The Obama administration said the pact with South Korea will support 70,000 U.S. jobs and help meet the president’s goal of doubling U.S. exports within five years. Mr. Obama and Mr. Lee have pushed hard for the agreement, despite some union opposition and questions about the openness of South Korea’s auto and beef markets to U.S. producers.
For South Korea, the visit will help strengthen ties with Seoul’s longtime chief military ally and also help to rebalance economic relations now that China has surpassed the United States as Seoul’s leading trading partner.
The U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement is projected to mean $10 billion annually in extra growth for the U.S. economy. The United States exports goods worth more than $40 billion to South Korea each year and is poised to export even more under the new agreement.
Mr. Lee, in an address to South Korean lawmakers before leaving, noted that the U.S. free-trade agreement will make South Korea the first country to have free-trade accords with all three of the world’s top trading entities — the United States, the European Union and the ASEAN group of fast-growing Southeast Asian economies.
In speeches, Mr. Obama has been pointing to South Korea as a model for its emphasis on education and its emergence as a major global player in such fields as automobiles, shipbuilding and electronics.
“In places like South Korea, they are hiring teachers in droves,” Mr. Obama said Tuesday in Pittsburgh, repeating a point he has made many times in promoting his jobs bill. “Here in the United States, we’re laying them off. It makes no sense. We’ve got to be able to compete in a global economy.”
Mr. Obama also speaks on the stump about the number of South Korean-made autos on the streets of the United States and of his hope that the trade pact will start to balance out that equation.
“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. Wakefield of 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.