President Obama hosts Republic of Korea President Lee Myung-bak at the White House for a State Visit on Thursday, an event that will provide a brief but welcome respite from the turmoil of Washington politics and mark a major success in the administration’s Asia policy.
South Korea has been one of America’s most stalwart allies over the decades and, by most measures, the ties between Washington and Seoul have never been better. The United States and the ROK are on the same page in many areas, including in assessing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and in coordinating efforts to respond to other regional security challenges. The United States stood by its South Korean ally last November after the North shelled a South Korean island. The display of solidarity and deterrence by the U.S. and the ROK showed that the alliance is as strong as ever. That theme will echo on Capitol Hill this week as President Lee addresses a Joint Session of Congress—a rarity for a foreign leader and an indication of the high regard the Congress has for this valued ally.
The U.S. security umbrella, open American markets, and remarkable economic development have made South Korea the world’s twelfth largest economy and the America’s seventh largest trading partner. As President Lee arrives in Washington, the Congress is scheduled to vote on the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), a wide-ranging pact that will eventually eliminate 95% of existing bilateral tariffs and provide important new protections for the U.S. service and auto industries. Congressional approval of this first U.S. FTA with a major Asian economy will add an important new dimension to bilateral ties and provide U.S. exporters with a welcome boost.
There is much to celebrate as the two presidents meet this week, including a shared commitment to democratic values and growing people-to-people ties. But President Obama and President Lee will also need to be mindful of challenges on the near-term horizon. Most important among these will be the need to enhance bilateral policy coordination on North Korea. As Pyongyang seeks to draw the United States back into bilateral talks and (together with China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea) into a resumption of Six-Party denuclearization talks, the North may, as in the past, try to drive a wedge between the allies by exploiting policy differences between Washington and Seoul.