WASHINGTON >> Heralding a visiting friend and some rare bipartisanship at home, President Barack Obama welcomed South Korea’s president to the White House on Thursday as a valuable world partner. The pageantry came mere hours after Congress pushed through a long-delayed trade pact between both leaders’ countries.
Under a steady rain and the cover of an umbrella, Obama told South Korean President Lee Myung-bak that the alliance of their nations is stronger than ever.
"With our landmark trade agreement, we will bring our nations even closer, creating new jobs for both our people and preserving our edge as two of the most dynamic economies in the world," Obama said.
In a rush of action timed to Lee’s visit, Congress on Wednesday approved free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. The administration says the three deals will boost U.S. exports by $13 billion a year and that just the agreement with South Korea will support 70,000 American jobs.
Lee declared the trade deal will be an engine of growth for both countries. "This historic achievement will open up a new chapter in our relationship," he said.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, greeted Lee and his wife, Kim Yoon-ok, on the South Lawn for a formal arrival ceremony at the start of a state visit full of pomp, circumstance and substance. Only the steady rain differentiated this colorful and historical ceremony from most such formal greetings-of-state that have preceded it.
The day was to include an Oval Office meeting between Obama and Lee and an address by Lee to a joint session of Congress, all culminating with a state dinner.
The setting had a festive atmosphere for Obama, who had gone 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.
After soaking morning rains, the White House grounds crew scrambled to ready the South Lawn for the arrival. Workers vacuumed around the podium platform where Obama and Lee were to speak, while others swept water off the area where the delegations would stand.
The trade deal will elevate the U.S.-South Korean alliance, traditionally defined by their opposition to communist-governed 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 it 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.
Lee, standing with Obama, said that on Wednesday he visited the Korean War Veterans Memorial to pay tribute. "The Korean people have never forgotten what these fallen soldiers and their families gave up. We will always remain grateful to all of them," he said.
Later, Lee was to become the first South Korean leader in 13 years to address a joint meeting of Congress.
While Lee and Obama will be discussing next steps on North Korea during their meeting, the main theme of the visit remains trade.
After hosting Lee at a White House state dinner Thursday night, Obama will travel with the South Korean leader to a General Motors plant in Detroit.
The free-trade pact was first agreed upon by the two governments and has taken four years to bear fruition because of the Obama administration’s demand for U.S. access to South Korea’s auto market.
Negotiators reached a compromise late last year, and Lee’s visit spurred Democrats and Republicans to set aside their differences and approve free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia. Lawmakers of both parties want to show they are taking action to stimulate the sluggish U.S. economy and create jobs.
The Korean pact, which still requires approval from South Korea’s legislature, is America’s biggest free-trade agreement since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Erica Werner contributed to this story.