WASHINGTON (Reuters) - South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is in Washington this week for a visit aimed at consummating a hard-fought free trade deal with the United States and deterring fresh provocations from North Korea.
Lee has proved to be a reliable and enthusiastic U.S. ally, lining up with Washington on North Korea, Afghanistan and anti-piracy efforts in Somalia and hosting a G-20 summit aimed at stabilizing the world economy.
"South Korea really sort of stepped up, which is part of Lee's agenda for Korea to be more of a global player at a time when the United States wanted to see allies like Korea stepping up," said Korea expert Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
Lee's sixth meeting with President Barack Obama since 2009 will feature a full state dinner on Thursday -- following his address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress shortly after American lawmakers are expected to approve a bilateral free trade agreement that removes most tariffs between the two economies. South Korea's parliament is also debating the pact.
The Obama administration has said the trade pact signed in 2007 and modified last year will create thousands of U.S. jobs and double exports to South Korea in five years. Washington hopes the trade deal will build momentum for a wider Transpacific free trade arrangement.
"The U.S.-Korea relationship now is about as strong as it's been in a very long time, and the passage of the KORUS -- the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement -- is really significant not only in terms of strengthening U.S.-Korea security and economic ties, but its broader import or meaning for U.S. engagement in Asia," said Michael Green, a CSIS Asia expert.
RE-ENGAGING NORTH KOREA
Obama and Lee will visit Detroit, the home of the U.S. automobile industry, on Friday.
The two presidents will also discuss ways to re-engage with North Korea. Seoul's ties with Pyongyang soured after Lee took office in early 2008 with a pledge to link large-scale aid to progress in U.S.-led international efforts to end North Korea's nuclear programs.
Ties between the two Koreas further deteriorated following the North's two deadly attacks on the South last year -- the sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of an island near their contested maritime border.
The provocations by the North, which walked away from six-country nuclear negotiations and conducted its second nuclear test in 2009, helped bring Washington and Seoul closer together.
On North Korea, Lee told his parliament he would seek "principled dialogue" with Pyongyang while having "flexibility" -- a position that departs from an earlier rigid stance insisting on full reciprocity from Pyongyang.
"The government will make efforts to put inter-Korean relations on a normal footing and continue to prepare for peaceful unification." said Lee, who also vowed to strengthen his country's military to deter North Korea.
Although Seoul's outreach to Pyongyang has not borne any fruit, Cha and other analysts expect that the United States will also resume engagement with North Korea in the hopes of moderating the North's behavior and ensuring the cooperation of the North's ally China in future regional disarmament talks.
"The longer that you do not engage with (North Korea), the more likely it is that they will carry out another provocation, whether that is a nuclear test or whether that is an armed conventional provocation against the South again," said Cha.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)