It’s all in the details

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It’s all in the details

U.S. President Barack Obama ended his brief 21-hour visit to Seoul and returned home. In comparison to his four-day stay in China, Obama spent less time with his South Korean ally, perhaps because there were fewer pending issues.

Yesterday’s summit was the third meeting between Obama and President Lee Myung-bak, and they are building a deep friendship. They made public their efforts to cooperate on resolving the North Korean nuclear issue and ratifying the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.

They also agreed to work together when Seoul hosts the G-20 summit next year and they vowed to collaborate to fight climate change, nuclear proliferation and terrorism. This is a good outcome. The summit sent a clear message to North Korea that it must not think about rupturing the U.S.-Korea alliance by trying to deal directly with the United States. For North Korea, the only remaining path is returning to the six-party talks and declaring its irreversible and verifiable nuclear dismantlement.

It is also promising that Lee and Obama have agreed that the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement is not only economically but also strategically important. In addition, it is fortunate that Obama has become aware of the fact that the U.S. trade imbalance with Asia has become an obstacle to Congress’s ratification of the free trade agreement with Korea, although trade between the U.S. and Korea is relatively balanced.

The expected opposition to the trade pact by the U.S. auto industry and unions still remains an obstacle, but that’s not something to be resolved through renegotiation. The problem can only be resolved when U.S. automakers produce cars that are attractive to the Korean market. And yet, Lee said that his government is interested in talking about the issue again, prompting the misunderstanding that he has signaled an intention to renegotiate.

Obama probably felt during his Asia tour that Korea is the most reliable ally for the United States in Northeast Asia. China is both a cooperative and competitive partner, while the new Democratic administration in Japan presents new challenges for the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Obama reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea based on provision of a nuclear umbrella and extended deterrence and has renewed his determination to upgrade the U.S.-Korea alliance to a strategic alliance for the 21st century based on the previous agreement. His remarks came at an appropriate time. In marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean War (1950-53), the two countries will hold foreign minister- and defense minister-level talks. The remaining task for the two governments will be to flesh out the specifics of their alliance.

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