South Korean President Lee Myung-bak left for Washington on Tuesday for talks with U.S. President Barack Obama as Congress is set to endorse a long-pending free trade agreement with Seoul, a landmark deal expected to bring the two allies further closer together.
With no thorny issues at hand between Seoul and Washington, Lee's five-day state visit is expected to be largely a celebratory event centering on the trade pact that is sure to pass through Congress on the eve of Thursday's summit talks after years of impasse following its signing in 2007.
Lee is also scheduled to address a joint session of Congress later Thursday, a rare event organized to mark the deal's ratification. Lee will be the first South Korean leader to speak at a joint Congressional session in 13 years after a 1998 speech by late former President Kim Dae-jung.
Lee and Obama also plan to travel together to Detroit, the heart of the U.S. auto industry, on Friday, a symbolic move seen as aimed at promoting benefits of the trade accord amid concern among American automakers that it could hurt their interests.
On his way home, Lee plans to spend a night in Chicago, Obama's political hometown, for a dinner meeting with business leaders of the two countries to be hosted by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had served as Obama's chief of staff.
The trade deal will be a key topic there too, officials said.
"This is a state visit. Rather than discussions on specific outstanding issues, the focus will be on events symbolizing the opening of a new chapter in the Korea-U.S. relations and the upgrade of their alliance," a senior presidential official said on customary condition of anonymity, referring to the trade deal.
The trade pact, which was modified last year to address U.S. concern about its auto industry, calls for tearing down or reducing tariffs and other barriers to exchange of goods and services. Officials have stressed the accord is not simply an economic deal but will also have far-reaching impacts on the overall relations between the traditional allies.
South Korea, a resource-scarce nation that relies mainly on exports for economic growth, has been aggressively seeking free trade accords with foreign countries to expand what Lee dubs the country's "economic territory."
Besides the agreement with the U.S., the fourth-largest Asian economy has seven FTAs already in effect, including those with the European Union and India, and is in negotiation with seven other nations, such as Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.
During a parliamentary budget speech on Monday, Lee said the FTA with the U.S. will make South Korea the only country in the world that has FTAs with the world's three major economic blocs -- the U.S., the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN).
According to government data, the free trade accord with the U.S. is expected to increase South Korea's gross domestic product (GDP) by 7.2 percent to US$32.6 billion over the next seven to 10 years, while contributing to creating an additional 520,000 jobs.
The expected U.S. ratification is expected to put pressure on South Korea's National Assembly to follow suit. The deal, which now stands at a parliamentary trade committee, has been one of the most contentious issues in parliament amid opposition objections.
The main opposition Democratic Party claims the deal favors the U.S. and should be renegotiated.
Other topics for Lee's summit talks with Obama will include North Korea, the regional situation in East Asia and other global matters, but no new agreement is expected on those issues, officials said.
"We don't have anything particular that needs coordination of positions," the senior presidential secretary said. "As there are no differences in the positions on issues like North Korea, we expect the two sides to simply reconfirm existing positions and celebrate the alliance that is more solid than ever."
Under Lee, Seoul and Washington have worked closely together in dealing with North Korea and its provocations, with the U.S. government fully backing Seoul's policies on the communist nation that improvement in inter-Korean relations is a precondition for better ties between Washington and Pyongyang.
That U.S. stance effectively forced North Korea to agree to bilateral nuclear talks with South Korea, a concession that breaks away from the North's usual reluctance to discuss the nuclear standoff with Seoul.
Two rounds of inter-Korean nuclear talks have been held, first in July and the latest meeting last month. Washington is also expected to hold its second round of talks with the North possibly later this month.
The South and the U.S., which fought against North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, have been demanding that the North take concrete steps to demonstrate it is serious about giving up its nuclear ambitions before the long-stalled six-party nuclear talks resume.