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Unformatted text preview: t Lee Myung-bak when I interviewed him here last Wednesday, though he described relations at the
moment as excellent. (Excerpts from our conversation are available here.) The two nations have signed a free-trade
agreement that Lee believes would -- in addition to bringing obvious economic benefit to both sides -- seal a crucial
alliance and promote stability throughout Northeast Asia. But President Obama has yet to submit the agreement to
Congress for ratification or say when he might do so. Given the neighborhood, you would think the United States
would jump at the opportunity. To Korea's east, Japan's rookie ruling party is driving the Obama administration to distraction
as Japan tries to figure out, so far without success, whether to distance itself from the United States. In North Korea, an isolated regime is "facing a transformative moment right now," Lee told me. Recently it "failed dismally in its
effort to reform its currency; the state of the North Korean economy is worsening by the day." For the
first time, he said, leaders have felt the need to explain themselves to their people. A reminder of the flashpoint the border
remains came March 26, when a South Korean corvette sank while cruising near North Korean waters,
with 46 sailors lost from its crew of 104. While the incident is being investigated, Lee refused to speculate on its cause, but he told me,
"I'm very committed to responding in a firm manner if need be." And then there is what Lee called "the China factor."
South Korea now trades more with China than with the United States and Japan combined , he said. Korea
values its relationship with China highly, and it is "just a matter of time" before Korea and China open negotiations on a free-trade
agreement (FTA) of their own. But, the president said, he is "concerned about the growing dependence of not only Korea but other countries in the region toward China." His desire for an American
counterweight is shared by leaders throughout East and Southeast Asia, but few will say so as
candidly. "For us, the FTA is not just simply a trade agreement or an economic agreement," he said.
"It really is much more than that." Obama has expressed general support for increasing trade with South Korea but hasn't
committed to the pact that he and Lee inherited from their predecessors. Every analysis shows it would benefit most
American consumers and industries, but it faces opposition from Ford Motor, some union leaders and some Democrats in
Congress. "When you look at the FTA from a bits-and-parts point of view, of course there will be opposition," Lee said. "We have
certain members of our industry, certain members of our national parliament, who are vehemently opposed." "But you really have to
look at the whole, entire FTA," he said, "and if it comes out as a plus, then it's the responsibility, I believe, of each country to really go
ahead and try to push this...
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- Spring '13