WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama hailed a just-completed trade deal with South Korea Thursday as he welcomed the country's president to the White House, offering warm praise for a solid ally in a world in flux.
At a joint news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama said that the long-delayed trade pact approved late Wednesday by Congress is "a win for both our countries," and that he and Lee had agreed to move forward with it quickly.
Obama said the deal would increase U.S. exports by $11 billion and support 70,000 jobs, while opening Korea's market to U.S. goods. Alluding to an issue that held up the deal, Obama said, "I'm very pleased it will help level the playing field for American automakers."
Obama is scheduled to take Lee with him to the Detroit area on Friday to tour a GM plant.
Lee said the trade deal, which still requires approval from South Korea's legislature, "will mark a turning point in the enduring alliance between our two nations" and called it "a historic achievement that will become a significant milestone."
Lee's state visit, officially begun Thursday morning with a South Lawn arrival ceremony full of pomp and circumstance, gave Obama a chance to celebrate a victory after going to Seoul last November to announce a free-trade pact with Lee — only to stand with his ally empty-handed because their negotiators had not been able to finish the deal.
For Obama, it was a rare bipartisan achievement amid political gridlock over his jobs agenda heading into his re-election campaign, and the president touted it as proof of his ability to work with the opposition.
"This trade deal, this Korea free trade act, shows we are happy to work with Republicans where they are willing to put politics behind the interests of the American people," Obama said.
Lee was to address a joint session of Congress Thursday afternoon before wrapping up his visit with a state dinner, the Obama administration's fifth such gala. Earlier Obama entertained Lee in a less formal setting, taking him out to eat at an upscale Korean restaurant in Virginia Wednesday evening.
It was a sign of the close relationship between the two leaders, which both underscored during their news conference.
Obama called Korea "one of our strongest allies" and praised Lee's "vision and commitment."
Lee, who took time Wednesday to visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, returned the compliment, speaking of "the strong partnership and friendship between our two countries."
Obama also had strong words for communist-governed North Korea, saying that "if Pyongyang continues to ignore its international obligations it will invite even more pressure and isolation." Asked whether North Korea might one day undergo the kind of popular uprising that toppled governments in the Arab Spring, Obama suggested that someday it might.
"I think that obviously the people of North Korea have been suffering under repressive policies for a very long time and none of us can look at a crystal ball and known when suddenly that type of government collapses on its own," Obama said. "What we know though is what people everywhere ... are looking for is the ability to determine their own destiny."
Lee joined Obama in condemning North Korea and calling on the country to "abandon its nuclear ambitions."
The U.S. and South Korea, Lee said, "speak with one voice" on the issue.
The trade deal — America's biggest free-trade agreement since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico — will elevate the U.S.-South Korean alliance, traditionally defined by their opposition to North Korea. More than 28,000 U.S. troops remain based in South Korea as a deterrent.
Under Obama, efforts to engage Asian nations have had their ups and downs. The key relationship with Japan has suffered from Tokyo's conveyor belt of prime ministers, and the U.S. has struggled to realize an effective, strategic alliance with India.
Relations with South Korea have been far more straightforward. Seoul has proved a willing helper on U.S. foreign policy priorities such as Afghanistan and fighting climate change.
The allies have moved in lockstep in their diplomacy toward North Korea, which was accused of launching two military attacks in 2010 that sank a South Korean submarine and killed 50 South Koreans, almost sparking another war on the divided Korean Peninsula.
Obama and Lee have refused to offer fresh aid and incentives to North Korea without Pyongyang taking concrete action to show it is sincere about eventually giving up its nuclear weapons.
That policy of "strategic patience" and reluctance to jump back into negotiations has come in for criticism. While multinational disarmament talks have been suspended, North Korea has unveiled a uranium program that gives it a new means of generating fissile material for atomic bombs.
In recent months, however, both Seoul and Washington have held exploratory talks with Pyongyang, helping dial down tensions.
The United States is expected to hold another meeting with North Korea soon, to discuss how the six-nation disarmament-for-aid negotiations can get back on track. Although it is thought very unlikely Pyongyang would ever give up its nuclear weapons, talks are seen as a way of forestalling fresh aggression by the North.
Both South Korea and the United States are entering an election year and will want to avoid the kind of security crisis that could ensue following a nuclear test or military attack.
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