At what price the red carpet treatment?
Yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised by the headline in the International Herald Tribune, which read, “In Seoul, Obama finds a leader he can relate to.”
Washington’s extraordinarily special reception of President Lee Myung-bak is making news. In time for Lee’s state visit, the U.S. Congress approved the free trade agreement with Korea after a four-year, three-month standoff. In a rare show of bipartisan support, the bill was passed in only six days. The president also enjoyed the privilege of visiting the Pentagon, a first for a head of state. In addition to the state dinner at the White House, Obama invited Lee to dine at a Korean restaurant. Lee also accompanied Obama on a visit to Detroit, the mecca of American automobile industry. The IHT wrote, “The carpet does not get any redder than that.”
According to the IHT, Lee is one of the few foreign leaders in whom President Obama can confide. Others include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. During his first visit to Korea in November 2009, Obama and Lee talked about the importance of education as well as the roles of parents and teachers. Obama has become an evangelist of Korean education, advocating Korea’s success on more than several occasions.
Obama’s favor certainly made the reception of Lee ever more cordial. But international relations are based more on national interests and there is no such thing as a free lunch. As China emerges, Korea is ever more important to the United States. Yet Korea will have to keep a balance between the two countries. Meanwhile, the approval of the FTA bill means that Korea and the United States are onboard the same ship for the economy as well as politics and military. The bill for the red carpet treatment may unexpectedly come from Beijing.
Now, Lee is having the time of his life. But back home, the controversy over his retirement home in Naegok-dong is growing. With his personal and political problems, I could understand if he wasn’t excited to return to Korea.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Bae Myung-bok