[Viewpoint] No such thing as a free state dinner

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[Viewpoint] No such thing as a free state dinner

A state visit to Washington is the highest diplomatic protocol given to a foreign leader by the U.S. president. It is not something you can win through lobbying. Top foreign affairs advisers, the White House chief of staff and the secretary of state make a recommendation after a thorough review. The National Security Council analyzes the specifics of the influence of the state visit on the two countries’ relations, and the U.S. president makes the decision based on the reports.

It is, therefore, a highly political event. Since his inauguration in January 2009, President Barack Obama has invited four leaders for state visits: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Chinese President Hu Jintao and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The highlight of a state visit is the state dinner held in the East Room of the White House. The U.S. president, wearing black-tie attire, and the first lady, in a beautiful gown, greet guests one after another. The guest list, dinner menu and the first lady’s dress are the hottest topics among socialites and celebrities in Washington.

For the state dinner on Singh’s behalf, the first lady wore a glamorous golden strapless gown by Indian-American designer Naeem Khan. When she greeted Hu, she wore a red silk organza dress.

The preparations for a state dinner are known to cost about $500,000, and some say that a White House state dinner has become scarcer because of the expensive price tag.

President Lee Myung-bak will be Obama’s fifth guest for a state visit. Lee’s state visit will be the first by a Korean president in 13 years since President Kim Dae-jung in 1998.

On the morning of Oct. 13, Lee will begin his state visit with an official welcoming ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House. He will inspect the honor guards and will receive a 21-gun salute with Obama. It is also routine protocol for the guest to give a speech at the U.S. Congress.

At a meeting with correspondents, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-hwan said Lee’s state visit was arranged at the request of the United States. He said that Korea had no expectations but that the United States had made a strong request for one, surprising Seoul.

A senior Blue House official said the two leaders’ friendship was probably the main reason. Through summits, Obama began to trust and respect Lee, he said, because the U.S. president was deeply touched by Lee’s story of success through diligence and willpower.

The official also said that Obama thinks of Lee as a serious partner in dialogue amidst the deepening importance of East Asia. When Hu visited the United States in January, Obama expected a candid conversation, but Hu did not budge, not even slightly, and only gave prepared remarks, largely disappointing Obama, the official said.

Japan’s leader has been replaced almost every year, making it hard for the country to be a partner.

“As China rose, U.S.-Japan relations became unstable due to the issues of relocating Okinawa base,” said Prof. Yoon Duk-min of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. “Korea’s strategic importance, therefore, was highlighted.”

A former government official who was deeply involved in Korea’s U.S. foreign policy paid special attention to the timing of Obama’s invitation. By having the timing coincide with Congressional approval of the long-pending Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, Obama appeared to strengthen not only the political and military alliance between the two countries but economic links as well. The timing shows the strategic intention to strongly anchor Korea to the United States, he said.

“When the United States gives the highest diplomatic treatment, there must be a reason,” he said. “We will probably receive a bill for it soon.”

The free trade deal, renegotiated at the request of the United States, could be part of the expense, he said. Or Korea could be asked to spend more on the relocation of U.S. bases in Korea, defense expenses for U.S. Forces Korea or purchases of advanced arms from the United States.

“We have to remember that the United States has decided to lower its defense budget by $1 trillion over the next decade,” he said.

Korea is walking a thin line between the United States and China. The alliance with the United States is a great asset, but it is also a burden as China rises.

We have already paid expensive prices during the Cheonan’s sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling. The stronger China becomes, the heavier the burden will be.

Maintaining the Korea-U.S. alliance, resolving the North Korean nuclear crisis and securing China’s support for unification are the biggest challenges of South Korea’s diplomacy.

In these sensitive times, Lee’s state visit may be a great honor for him personally, but the people are nervous about the bill they’re going to be stuck with. After all, there is no such thing as a free dinner.

*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Bae Myung-bok
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