Is South Korea America's New Best Friend in Asia?

By LaFranchi, Howard | The Christian Science Monitor, October 13, 2011 | Go to article overview

Is South Korea America's New Best Friend in Asia?


LaFranchi, Howard, The Christian Science Monitor


A new trade pact with South Korea and a state dinner for President Lee Myung-bak highlights the growth of the US-South Korea alliance, which some say has never been stronger.

President Obama is fond of saying that if Americans are driving Hyundais and Kias, then South Koreans ought to be driving Chevys, Fords, and Chryslers as well.

South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak is in the US this week for a White House state visit, and on Friday the two leaders will visit a General Motors plant in Detroit, where Mr. Obama will invite his guest to try out one of the "Made in America" vehicles that should soon be easier to find on the streets of Seoul and Busan.

That's because after four years of delays, Congress ratified the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on Wednesday, a day before President Lee attends a White House state dinner in his honor. Also on Thursday, Lee is to address a joint session of Congress.

Trade is likely to be the high-profile, feel-good topic of Lee's visit, boosted by the just-out-of-the-oven trade pact that proponents in the US say will mean $11 billion in new US exports and thousands of new jobs. Opponents counter that the Korea FTA, along with two smaller trade deals with Colombia and Panama, will send US jobs overseas.

The other items on the Obama-Lee agenda - from North Korea and nuclear issues to rousing the military giant that is China - are unlikely to cause any waves in a relationship that some regional analysts say has never been stronger.

The US-South Korea relationship is "probably ... at one of its highest points, if not the highest point in history," says Victor Cha, Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Under Lee, South Korea has become one of the US's closest allies, in terms of its efforts in Afghanistan, in the G20 economic forum, and even on green initiatives, Mr. Cha adds.

All these things add up to "President Lee, on what is likely his last visit to the US as the president of South Korea, ... being awarded this honor" of a state visit.

A Washington 'bromance'

"To use a Hollywood term, it's going to come across a bit like a bromance," says Bruce Klingner, a North Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"That's quite a change," he adds, "from the way things were under Lee's predecessor," Roh Moo-hyun, who maintained prickly relations with the US.

Relations between Obama and Lee, and between Washington and Seoul more broadly, are so strong that some Asia analysts now put South Korea ahead of Japan on the list of Washington's closest Asian allies.

Even the Obama administration's recent overtures to reclusive North Korea have not caused serious bumps in relations. The US initiated talks with the North in New York at the official level, and recently approved a modest amount of humanitarian aid for the country, which is beset by hunger.

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