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(News Focus) Lee's state visit to U.S. a celebration of ever-strengthening alliance

All Headlines 04:00 October 16, 2011

By Chang Jae-soon

CHICAGO, Oct. 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's state visit to the United States was a celebration and display of Seoul's ever-strengthening alliance with Washington as the two allies take another big leap forward with a historic free trade agreement.

Congress went to great lengths to approve the trade deal while Lee was in town, inviting Lee to address a rare joint session of the House and the Senate. The U.S. government also invited Lee to an unprecedented security briefing at the Pentagon while President Barack Obama took Lee out to an unusual private dinner at a Korean restaurant.

In addition, Obama traveled together with Lee to Detroit, the heart of the U.S. auto industry, a move aimed at showing their commitment to the trade accord that had raised concern among U.S. critics that it could pose a threat to American automakers.

All these are considered reflections of the importance the U.S. places on its alliance with Seoul.

"I can never say it enough: The commitment of the United States to the defense and security of the Republic of Korea will never waver," Obama said during a joint press conference with Lee. During a welcome ceremony ahead of summit talks, Obama said the alliance is "unbreakable."

Lee repeatedly stressed the trade agreement's significance, hailing it as a "historic achievement," a "milestone" and a "win-win" agreement that "opened up a new chapter" in the countries' 60 years of political and military alliance that he said was "forged in blood" during the 1950-53 Korean War.

The United States fought alongside the South against invading troops from the communist North Korea in the conflict. The war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the two Koreas still technically at war. About 28,500 American troops are stationed in South Korea to help deter the North.

"For the last 60 years, we have maintained a strong political, military alliance. Now the Korea-U.S. FTA signals the beginning of an economic alliance. This alliance will strengthen and elevate our military and political alliance to a whole new level," Lee said during a joint press conference with Obama after summit talks Thursday.

"This agreement will create more jobs, generate more trade and stimulate our economies," he said.

Obama hailed the pact as "a win for both our countries."

"In short, this agreement will boost American exports by up to US$11 billion and support some 70,000 American jobs," he said during the joint news conference.

The deal, first signed in 2007 and modified last year to address U.S. concerns about its auto industry, calls for tearing down or reducing tariffs and other barriers to the exchange of goods and services. Officials have stressed the accord is not simply an economic deal, but will also have far-reaching impact on overall relations between the traditional allies.

The congressional ratification of the pact on Wednesday is expected to put pressure on South Korea's National Assembly to follow suit. The deal, which now stands at a parliamentary trade committee, has been one of the most contentious issues in parliament amid opposition objections.

As always, North Korea was also a key topic for Lee's trip to the U.S., with both leaders pressing the communist nation to give up its nuclear ambitions and join the international community.

Calling the North a "direct threat," Obama said Seoul and Washington are "entirely united" on how to deal with Pyongyang and have "succeeded in changing the equation with the North by showing that its provocations will be met not with rewards, but with even stronger sanctions and isolations."

"So the choice is clear for North Korea: If Pyongyang continues to ignore its international obligations, it will invite even more pressure and isolation. If the North abandons its quest for nuclear weapons and moves toward denuclearization, it will enjoy greater security and opportunity for its people. That's the choice that North Korea faces," he said.

Lee said that he and Obama have been and will remain "in complete agreement" on North Korea.

"Our principled approach will remain steadfast. We agreed that North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons poses a serious threat to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and the world. We will continue to work toward denuclearization of the peninsula," he said.

Seoul and Washington have been in sync on North Korea issues, with the U.S. government fully backing the South's policies on the North that insist on improvement of inter-Korean relations as a precondition for better ties between Washington and Pyongyang.

The U.S. has also stood firmly by Seoul at times of high tensions -- particularly in the wake of North Korea's two deadly attacks on the South last year -- enacting sanctions to punish the communist nation and demanding that Pyongyang give up its nuclear programs.

Lee also received a security briefing from top American military officials during an unprecedented visit to the Pentagon on Wednesday. Lee was the first South Korean president to visit the Pentagon. The briefing was held in the Pentagon's secure "Tank Room," making Lee the first foreign leader to get a security briefing in the room.

The U.S. participants in the meeting included Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey and other top American military commanders, such as the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force, the office said.

Lee was also the first South Korean leader to speak at a joint congressional session in 13 years.

His speech highlighted the trade deal's significance, his commitment to unification with North Korea and to ending Pyongyang's nuclear programs as well as South Korea's rapid rise from a recipient of international aid to a donor nation.

The speech was interrupted 45 times for applause and standing ovations. One of the biggest standing ovations came when Lee singled out congressmen who served in the Korean War and expressed his thanks.


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