BEIJING - When one is dined and wined extravagantly, one should expect to pay
an extravagant bill. That's common sense. It is especially so in international
politics where national interest is the main driving force behind state actors'
actions and reactions.
Pundits in Seoul have been debating that matter since South Korean President
Lee Myung-bak returned from his visit to the
United States where he was treated with extravagant hospitality by his
counterpart, Barack Obama, earlier this month.
Obama's uncommon hospitality to Lee even raised eyebrows in the American media.
In an almost act of provocation, the Christian Science Monitor on October 13
carried a title: "Is South Korea America's new best friend in Asia?"
The American newspaper noted that the US-South Korea alliance "has never been
stronger". It even went on to cite some Asia analysts in Washington who "now
put South Korea ahead of Japan on the list of Washington's closest Asian
Obama made sure Lee certainly feel special in Washington. Mark Landler of the
New York Times observed: "For a visiting head of state, the carpet does not get
any redder than that."
In Washington, Lee was awarded the honor of a State Visit, which Obama has
granted to only four other heads of state so far. At the official banquet,
Obama greeted Lee by speaking in Korean: "Ham Kye Gap Si da!" ("Let's
Obama also arranged a personal briefing for Lee by US Defense Secretary Leon
Panetta and the US military's top officer, General Martin Dempsey, along with
chiefs of all the armed services in a secure conference room at the Pentagon,
dubbed "The Tank" that marked "the first time in recent history that a foreign
head of state has been briefed by the service chiefs in The Tank," according to
Pentagon spokesman Captain John Kirby.
In addition, Lee was invited to address a joint session of the United States
Congress, the sixth head of a state to do so in Obama's term. During his
speech, Lee was applauded by US lawmakers 45 times - again a record so far
during the incumbent administration.
While Lee was in Washington, congress also approved the long-stalled (since the
George Bush administration) free trade agreement (FTA) with South Korea. Lee
even went off the script to cite the common values he shared with Americans: "I
personally also like the Kentucky Fried Chicken!"
On North Korea, the Obama administration has been faithfully standing by the
South Korean president's hardline posture, despite complaints from some
American strategists that US foreign policy on Pyongyang has been hijacked by
Seoul. The US and South Korea have been in total agreement "in every aspect of
our diplomacy with respect to North Korea", said Assistant Secretary of State
for Asia Kurt Campbell on October 11, after returning from his visit to South
Korea the previous week.
Besides the state banquet, Obama arranged a private dinner for Lee, separately,
by taking Lee to a Korean restaurant, Wu Lae Oak, in the Virginia suburb where
Obama himself picked the popular Korean dish bibimbap and bulgoki.
The next day, Obama even personally accompanied Lee to a road trip to Detroit,
America's auto Mecca.
So, what's going on here? Why the special treatment for Lee? Obama doesn't do
it to everyone.
"When Obama deals with foreign leaders, he tends to be very transactional,"
Victor Cha, a former Asia adviser in the Bush administration who teaches at
Georgetown University, told the New York Times. Cha attributed it to personal
chemistry between the two leaders. "There's absolutely no doubt that he has
really connected on a personal level with this leader [Lee Myung-bak]," he
The New York Times wrote: "There may be something mysterious and powerful at
play between Mr Obama and Mr Lee: Call it a presidential man-crush."
Other American analysts agree. "To use a Hollywood term, it's going to come
across a bit like a bromance [brother + romance]," Bruce Klingner, a
North Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, told the Christian
The October 13 edition of The International Herald Tribune, picked up in
downtown Seoul, read: "In Seoul, Obama finds a leader he can relate to."
While Lee's aides don't conjure "magic" to characterize the duo's close
personal relationship and tried to project Obama's uncommon hospitality as a
consequence of personal bonding, and while South Koreans also welcomed the
personal chemistry as a boost to the two nations' alliance relationship, they
also pulled out a calculator to do the math to measure the price for
After all, today's international relations are dictated by the so-called
"structural realism", an American invention. And according to structural
realism, states simply act in accordance with their own interest.
With regard to Lee and Obama's trip to Detroit, the New York Times describes
the scene in which the two met with auto workers: "Detroit is a politically
crucial state among auto workers who Obama is desperately hoping will reward
him for the auto industry bailout by showing up at the polls to vote for him
Standing next to Lee before auto industry employees, Obama even made a remark
that may have been interpreted as a "pressure" on Lee. "They buy as much stuff
from us as they sell to us!" "That's how free and fair trade is supposed to
be!" The crowd cheered. The New York Times goes:
"I know President Lee
is a Hyundai guy," Mr Obama said, to chuckles. He added that that "Koreans
should be able to buy some Fords and Chryslers and Chevys that are made right
here in the United States."
Then he bounded off the stage as music blared. Obama worked the crowd for a few
minutes as a mystified-looking Mr Lee watched, his blue baseball cap with its
big D in the front still on his head.
Choi Dai-shik, a reporter
with South Korean broadcaster SBS accompanied Lee's US visit, including his
road trip to Detroit, wrote in his web blog on October 19:
It's fair to
say that the two leaders' visit to Detroit was actually Lee's giving a helping
hand to Obama to boost Obama's domestic support rating. Even though Michigan,
where Detroit belongs to, is a traditional turf for the Democrats, the
worsening local economy made it become a battle field for Obama who faces
re-election next year.
The presidential Blue House and the government tried to portray Lee's Detroit
as part of Obama's extension of hospitality. But I felt that it was more of
Lee's helping hand to Obama in his domestic politics. As I was in Detroit, I
couldn't help but feel that there was no such thing as free lunch.
During their press conference, Obama also cited Lee as saying that the free
trade bill would pass South Korea's National Assembly. "I trust President Lee's
leadership," Obama said looking at Lee.
Shin Yool of Seoul's Myongji University believes the US will ramp up its
pressure to expand its export to South Korea. He told SBS: "I get the sense
that the US is in a great hurry. There's a high chance that US notch up
pressure on South Korea to buy more US beef."
Next year, the Lee administration plans to buy the largest ever US weapons in
history - worth 14.5 trillion won (US$397 billion). South Korea's plan is
likely to help US military industry to stay afloat amid US defense budget cuts.
Noting the fact, Kim Jin-pyo, floor leader of the opposition Democratic Party
on October 25, said: "President Lee received great hospitality during his visit
to the US. And there is speculation whether the hospitality was the price for
South Korea's purchase of massive US weapons."
In their Washington summit, Lee and Obama agreed to "cooperate" on rebuilding
Libya. There is a view that the US is likely to ask South Korea to open its
pocket and increase its financial support for the purpose. Although not on the
official agenda, Lee's critics also speculate that Lee and Obama likely
discussed during their 50-minute closed door meeting the possibility of sending
more Korean troops to Afghanistan.
South Korea had about 200 soldiers in Afghanistan until 2007 but withdrew them
after Taliban forces kidnapped South Korean missionaries, leaving behind only
dozens of medical staff and job training experts. In 2010, however, South
Korea, a close US ally, sent 350 troops to Afghanistan again to "to protect
South Korean civilian engineers working on reconstruction."
"Lee received a great hospitality in the US. In fact, the Lee Myung-bak
government has been treated by well by the United States throughout its
existence. The reasons certainly include strategic thinking on the side of the
US," Ruediger Frank, a German expert on North Korea who teaches at the
University of Vienna, told Asia Times Online.
Besides Obama's hospitality on Lee, a major agenda of Lee's US visit was about
pushing through the FTA.
"Passing the trade bill was Obama's political achievement and the US sees
signing the FTA with South Korea also benefits its security interest in East
Asia, especially against the backdrop of China's rise," Dong Yong-seung, chief
economic security analyst at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul,
told Asia Times Online.
"With South Korea's economy cruising well, while Japan is experiencing economic
downturn and political uncertainty in the aftermath of the earthquake and
tsunami attacks early this year, the US needs South Korea more than before. You
can say South Korea's value to the US has increased. South Korea is also going
through military reforms, which include buying more US weapons. So, the US
treated Lee well out of its own interest," said Dong.
Now in Seoul, the Lee administration and his Grand National Party (GNP) are
stepping up efforts to ratify the trade bill. Opposition parties claim the FTA
was to South Korea's disadvantage, demanding postponing the date for the
eliminating tariffs on agricultural and livestock-related products and some
backup measures. Lee's GNP, in control of 168 out of the current 295 seats in
the unicameral chamber, has the power to pass the bills unilaterally.
Lee's critics bemoan that Lee's diplomacy is overall too tilted toward the US.
"It's because those advisers surrounding Lee believe that as long as South
Korea maintains a good relationship with the US and maintains a strong alliance
with the US, all things will go well. This is cold-war thinking," Chang
Dal-joong, politics professor at Seoul National University, told Asia Times
Online. "South Korea should be able to work with other countries as well,
Chung Dong-young, former chairman of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP),
railed at Lee's trade minister Kim Jong-hoon on October 13 during a National
Assembly review session on FTA, calling Kim a "traitor who has attempted to
make South Korea an economic colony of the United States".
Indeed, Lee's critics see Lee "too pro-America", On October 14, Lee Joon-gu, an
economics professor at Seoul National University, wrote in his web blog:
me put it this way. Imagine I have a very diligent servant who wakes up early
in the morning every day and works very hard. But then I've found out that he
doesn't actually work on my farm. Instead he spends more time working on my
neighbor's farm. Worse, while he works for my neighbor's farm, he throws weed,
small rocks and other rubbish in my farm's direction. Should I compliment him
for his hard work?
Sohn Hak-kyu, current chairman of the main
opposition DP, has urged Lee to re-negotiate the terms of the FTA with the US.
"The fact that it was passed in the US doesn't automatically constitute a
justification that it has to be passed here in South Korea."
"It's welcoming news to see that President Lee was treated with great
hospitality in the US. But we cannot exchange American hospitality to our
president with our national interest," Sohn noted.
Sunny Lee ([email protected]) is a Seoul-born columnist
and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.
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