WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama praised a just-completed trade deal with South Korea on Thursday as he welcomed the country's president to the White House, offering warm praise for a solid ally in a world in flux.
At a joint news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Obama said the long-delayed trade pact approved late Wednesday by Congress is "a win for both our countries," and that he and Lee had agreed to move forward with it quickly.
Obama said the deal would increase U.S. exports by $11 billion and support 70,000 jobs, while opening Korea's market to more U.S. goods. Alluding to an issue that held up the deal, Obama said, "I'm very pleased it will help level the playing field for American automakers."
Obama is scheduled to take Lee with him Friday to the Detroit, Michigan, area, the center of the U.S. auto industry, to tour a General Motors plant.
Lee said the trade deal, which still requires approval from South Korea's legislature, "will mark a turning point in the enduring alliance between our two nations" and called it "a historic achievement that will become a significant milestone."
It is America's biggest free-trade agreement since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. The pact 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.
Lee's state visit, which began officially Thursday morning with a South Lawn arrival ceremony full of pomp and circumstance despite persistent rain, gave Obama a chance to celebrate a political victory after going to Seoul last November to announce a free-trade pact with Lee – only to stand with his ally empty-handed because their negotiators had been unable to finish the deal.
For Obama, it was a rare bipartisan achievement amid political gridlock over his jobs agenda heading into his re-election campaign, and the president promoted it as proof of his ability to work with the opposition.
"This trade deal, this Korea free trade act, shows we are happy to work with Republicans where they are willing to put politics behind the interests of the American people," Obama said.
Lawmakers gave Lee a rousing reception later as he became the first Korean president in 13 years to address a joint meeting of Congress. Speaking to an audience wearing headsets to hear the translation of his speech delivered in Korean language, Lee described the U.S.-South Korean alliance as one forged in the blood of the 1950-53 Korean War and sustained by a shared belief in economic and political freedom.
On Thursday evening, Lee was to attend a state dinner at the White House, the Obama administration's fifth such gala. The night before, Obama entertained Lee in a less formal setting, taking him to eat at an upscale Korean restaurant in suburban Virginia.
It was a sign of the close relationship between the two leaders, emphasized by both during their news conference.
Obama called Korea "one of our strongest allies" and praised Lee's "vision and commitment." Lee returned the compliment, speaking of "the strong partnership and friendship between our two countries."
South Korea has proved a willing helper on foreign policy priorities advanced by Obama such as the war in Afghanistan and fighting climate change. Underscoring the depth of ties, Lee declared that for stability to endure in Northeast Asia, U.S. leadership "must remain supreme in the 21st century."
Obama had strong words for North Korea, saying that "if Pyongyang continues to ignore its international obligations it will invite even more pressure and isolation." Asked whether North Korea might one day undergo the kind of popular uprising that toppled governments in the Arab Spring, Obama suggested that someday it might.
"I think that obviously the people of North Korea have been suffering under repressive policies for a very long time and none of us can look at a crystal ball and known when suddenly that type of government collapses on its own," Obama said. "What we know though is what people everywhere ... are looking for is the ability to determine their own destiny."
Lee said that South Korea and the U.S. "speak with one voice" on North Korea. He also told lawmakers that he would never accept the division of the Korean Peninsula as a "permanent condition." He said the South and North must achieve a peaceful reunification, but for that to happen, the North must give up its nuclear ambitions.
For the past three years, 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 Pyongyang 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.
Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn, Ben Feller and Julie Pace contributed to this report.