Eager to bolster South Korea and wary of initiatives on the North, the Obama administration is putting a new priority on ratification of a free trade agreement that has languished for years.
On a weekend visit to Seoul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held talks about North Korea but barely said a word publicly about it. Instead, she spoke at length on the trade deal, vowing to push it through Congress this year.
Clinton told business leaders Sunday that ratification would be "one of my top priorities" and that it would send "another powerful message that we are working together, of course for our own countries, but also in a strategic relationship that is beneficial to the region and the world."
The United States stations close to 30,000 troops in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, and incessant tensions with the communist North have long dominated the relationship between Seoul and Washington.
But the dynamic has changed since President Lee Myung-Bak took over in South Korea in 2008 and US President Barack Obama a year later. Both have low tolerance for North Korea, which has defied the world by pursuing nuclear weapons.
The Obama administration has set a policy of "strategic patience," refusing dialogue until North Korea recommits to denuclearization and makes amends for deadly incidents including the sinking of South Korea's Cheonan vessel last year.
But Obama still wants to engage South Korea. He has come to view Lee as one of his closest foreign allies -- a sharp change from the often hostile rapport between the two leaders' predecessors, George W. Bush and Roh Moo-Hyun.
On his first presidential tour of Asia in 2009, Obama was visibly elated by his warm reception in Seoul. Clinton hailed Lee for spearheading summits on the economy and nuclear security, saying that South Korea "has become, in many ways, a global power."
A senior US official heaped praise on the "sophisticated" Lee, saying that -- in contrast to many Asian leaders -- he began talks with Clinton by discussing not bilateral concerns but instead Libya.
The official told reporters traveling with Clinton that Asian leaders' top hope for the United States -- even more than security -- was economic engagement.
"They are viewing the Korea free trade agreement as basically the linchpin for the next 50 years in terms of US-Korean relations," the official said on condition of anonymity.
Obama was a late convert to the South Korea free trade agreement, which was first negotiated under Bush and would eliminate 95 percent of tariffs.
The Obama administration eventually renegotiated the deal to give the United States more time to phase out tariffs on South Korean cars. The new version won over key opponents including Ford Motor Co. and some lawmakers from Obama's Democratic Party.
But opposition remains. The AFL-CIO, the main US labor confederation, rejects Obama's predictions that the pact would support 70,000 US jobs and says that it will primarily benefit US corporations.
Clyde Prestowitz, a trade negotiator in Ronald Reagan's presidency who now heads the Economic Strategy Institute, said that the United States would lose out in the deal due to South Korea's non-tariff barriers.
"The State Department tends to make these bad deals because it doesn't care about the economic merits but about preserving cozy relations," Prestowitz said.
"We don't need a trade deal with Korea to maintain our strategic relationship. Suppose we don't do this deal -- are the Koreans going to say, 'Take your troops back?' I don't think so," he said.
But he said the deal made sense for South Korea. Asia's fourth largest economy has been seeking trade pacts around the world to give it a strategic edge, fearing it will be eclipsed by neighboring giants China and Japan.
The South Korea agreement has been held up in Congress, with the rival Republican Party supporting it but telling Obama it also wants to move forward on separate free trade deals with Colombia and Panama.
The Obama administration has announced progress on those two pacts. Bill Craft, a deputy assistant secretary of state, said Tuesday that all three pacts should be ready for Congress "this spring or certainly by early summer."
Lee has also reached out to Republicans. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican senator, is visiting Seoul this week.