President Obama will welcome South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to the White House on Thursday, just as the two countries have reached a new free trade agreement and the East Asian nation has emerged as Obama’s most reliable partner in that dynamic region.
The trappings of the state visit have been set up: U.S. and Korean flags line Pennsylvania Avenue and a state dinner has been planned at the White House. Obama, who took Lee to Woo Lae Oak restaurant in Tysons Corner on Wednesday night, and first lady Michelle Obama are set to formally receive Lee and his wife Kim Yoon-ok at the South Lawn of the White House at 9 a.m.
Obama will host a pair of bilateral meetings Thursday morning, after which he and Lee will hold a news conference in the Rose Garden at 12:20 p.m. Lee is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress later in the afternoon, one day after Congress approved a trade agreement with Korea that some experts predict could create 280,000 jobs.
The president had sent the Korean deal, along with smaller pacts with Columbia and Panama, to Congress after touting them as a way to help spur economic growth. The South Korea deal is widely hailed as the most consequential trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified in 1994.
Obama will emphasize the point when he travels with Lee to Detroit on Friday to tour a General Motor factory. The United Auto Workers union has said it supports the trade pacts, even as other unions have warned that any jobs increases could be offset by layoffs in the United States because of increased competition from South Korean imports.
Still analysts said the pact highlights a growing trust between the Obama and Lee administrations.
“Korea has emerged as the U.S.’s most reliable partner,” said Michael Green, a former National Security Council director for Asia.“This is now probably Obama’s strongest relationship in Asia.”
“I agree Korea is Obama’s closest Asia partner today but I think that was accidental, not deliberate,” said Victor Cha, a former White House adviser on Asia for the Bush administration.
The close tie between Obama and Lee is a somewhat surprising development for an administration that came in more focused on China, Japan and India, such experts say — a result of the political turmoil in Japan and India, and an often fractious relationship with China over economic and security issues.
One key issue that will be discussed is what to do about North Korea, especially amid renewed exchanges between North and South Korea as well as between U.S. and officials from the North.
The U.S. has emphasized that dialogue between North and South is more important than its involvement and has also expressed wariness of reviving six-party talks without clear signs of commitment by North Korea. The six-party talks — which also involve China, South Korea, Japan and Russia — have been stalled since 2008.
“No one really expects [the North] to denuclearize,” Cha said. “There’s no expectation that a grand bargain will take place” at this point, he said, so the real reason for the renewed engagement between U.S. and South Korea is to try to prevent the North from provocations such as missile tests.
Other topics that could be discussed include food aid for the North and education issues. During his jobs tour, Obama has repeatedly brought up South Korea’s investment in education as an example of the global competitiveness that the U.S. must strive to meet.
“This week, I’m going to be hosting the president of South Korea,” Obama said this week during a stop in Pittsburgh. “I had lunch with him in Seoul, South Korea. I said, what’s your biggest problem? He says, ‘The parents are too demanding. I’m having to import teachers because all our kids want to learn English when they’re in first grade.’ So they’re hiring teachers in droves at a time when we’re laying them off? That doesn’t make any sense.”