* Bilateral trade deal set for U.S. passage
* Close ally to be feted by White House, Congress
* North Korea talks seen unpromising but necessary
By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON, Oct 12 South Korean President Lee
Myung-bak is in Washington this week for a visit aimed at
consummating a hard-fought free trade deal with the United
States and deterring fresh provocations from North Korea.
Lee has proved to be a reliable and enthusiastic U.S. ally,
lining up with Washington on North Korea, Afghanistan and
anti-piracy efforts in Somalia and hosting a G-20 summit aimed
at stabilizing the world economy.
"South Korea really sort of stepped up, which is part of
Lee's agenda for Korea to be more of a global player at a time
when the United States wanted to see allies like Korea stepping
up," said Korea expert Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic
and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
Lee's sixth meeting with President Barack Obama since 2009
will feature a full state dinner on Thursday -- following his
address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress shortly after
American lawmakers are expected to approve a bilateral free
trade agreement that removes most tariffs between the two
economies. South Korea's parliament is also debating the pact.
The Obama administration has said the trade pact signed in
2007 and modified last year will create thousands of U.S. jobs
and double exports to South Korea in five years. Washington
hopes the trade deal will build momentum for a wider
Trans-Pacific free trade arrangement.
"The U.S.-Korea relationship now is about as strong as it's
been in a very long time, and the passage of the KORUS -- the
Korea-U.S. free trade agreement -- is really significant not
only in terms of strengthening U.S.-Korea security and economic
ties, but its broader import or meaning for U.S. engagement in
Asia," said Michael Green, a CSIS Asia expert.
RE-ENGAGING NORTH KOREA
Obama and Lee will visit Detroit, the home of the U.S.
automobile industry, on Friday.
The two presidents will also discuss ways to re-engage with
North Korea. Seoul's ties with Pyongyang soured after Lee took
office in early 2008 with a pledge to link large-scale aid to
progress in U.S.-led international efforts to end North Korea's
Ties between the two Koreas further deteriorated following
the North's two deadly attacks on the South last year -- the
sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of an island
near their contested maritime border.
The provocations by the North, which walked away from
six-country nuclear negotiations and conducted its second
nuclear test in 2009, helped bring Washington and Seoul closer
On North Korea, Lee told his parliament he would seek
"principled dialogue" with Pyongyang while having "flexibility"
-- a position that departs from an earlier rigid stance
insisting on full reciprocity from Pyongyang.
"The government will make efforts to put inter-Korean
relations on a normal footing and continue to prepare for
peaceful unification." said Lee, who also vowed to strengthen
his country's military to deter North Korea.
Although Seoul's outreach to Pyongyang has not borne any
fruit, Cha and other analysts expect that the United States
will also resume engagement with North Korea in the hopes of
moderating the North's behavior and ensuring the cooperation of
the North's ally China in future regional disarmament talks.
"The longer that you do not engage with (North Korea), the
more likely it is that they will carry out another provocation,
whether that is a nuclear test or whether that is an armed
conventional provocation against the South again," said Cha.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)