* Lee: Trade deal to forge US-Korean "economic alliance"
* Close U.S. ally to be feted by White House, Congress
* North Korea talks seen unpromising but necessary
(Recasts with Lee speech in Washington)
By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON, Oct 12 South Korean President Lee
Myung-bak on Wednesday held up his country's pending free trade
deal with the United States as the best answer to the global
economic crisis and a boon to Koreans and Americans.
Lee is in Washington this week for a state visit with
President Barack Obama aimed at consummating the trade pact
that was signed in 2007 but has languished in both countries'
legislatures until recently.
The accord "is about providing opportunities to many people
in both of our countries," he told an audience of business
leaders and Korea experts.
Lee, who rose from poverty to the top levels of corporate
Korea before becoming a politician, said the free trade deal
removing most tariffs between the two economies would create
nothing less than an "economic alliance" between Seoul and
"This economic alliance will promote free trade and send a
powerful message all around the world that Korea and the United
States stand united in our commitment to rejecting all forms of
protectionism and that we are committed to free, open and fair
trade," he said.
"History teaches us that protectionism is not the answer
when you are faced with a challenge of this magnitude," said
Lee, referring to the economic slump in industrialized
Lee has proved to be a reliable and enthusiastic U.S. ally,
lining up with Washington on North Korea, Afghanistan,
anti-piracy efforts in Somalia and the G-20 summit aimed at
stabilizing the world economy.
'A GLOBAL PLAYER'
"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 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 the free trade agreement.
South Korea's parliament is also debating the pact.
The Obama administration has said the trade pact 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.
Lee urged U.S. and Korean executives to promote the trade
deal by expanding investment and hiring -- answering critics of
the deal in both countries.
The free trade agreement "is a very significant achievement
because I know that it will create jobs and it will be
beneficial not only to business community, but also to workers,
small businesses and consumers," he said.
Obama and Lee will visit Detroit, the home of the U.S.
automobile industry and many critics of trade pact, 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 on Monday 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.
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.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)