2011: South Korea's Lee Myung-bak is One Man Washington Can Agree On

In Washington, Lee Myung-bak (L), President of the Republic of Korea, begins his address to Congress, with Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker John Boehner (R) behind him, on Oct. 13, 2011. (Flickr/SpeakerBoehner)

This is part of a series of year-end posts on Asia Blog written by Asia Society experts and Associate Fellows looking back on noteworthy events in 2011. You can read the entire series here.

The momentous events in Asia this year — the glimmer of reform in Burma, an American "strategic pivot" through consequential visits of President Obama and Secretary Clinton, China's expansion into the world's second largest economy — stand in sharp contrast to bleak year in Washington. Gridlock pervades the capital, nearly shutting the U.S. Government four times (as of today…), and sparking global concern about the reliability as a political partner and vitality as an economy of the United States.

Americans say in poll after poll that they yearn for a leader who will come to Washington, cut through the gridlock, and get the nation’s business done. This year, that leader arrived — South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

President Lee's state visit on October 13 forced the passage on October 12 of the Korea U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), the most important free trade agreement by the United States since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. This great moment of legislative activity also shook loose agreements with Colombia and Panama.

In an era when Asian nations increasingly question America's role in Asia, South Korea has been an outlier. President Lee has acted despite domestic political expediency to strengthen his nation’s partnership with the United States. As a catalyst for passage of the KORUS FTA, he even helped create 70,000 American jobs.

Lee charmed Washington, strongly stating to the Hill and the Administration a compelling case for greater cooperation. In the wake of the passage of the KORUS FTA, he made the case for cooperation, even when our economic realities drive a national focus inward. "When we trade together, we grow together," he said. "When we build together, we rise together. And when we work together, we win together."

In an era of challenging politics and immediate economic concerns, it is difficult for official Washington to look to the long-term. The same applies in Seoul. In 2012 elections likely to be contested around economic issues and the perception of unmet promises, both President Obama and President Lee’s parties face significant challenges.

In this context, advances in international cooperation are hard won. For five days in October, though, Washington was rightfully proud of its action to advance engagement with Asia.

Editor's note: The above post was written prior to North Korean ruler Kim Jong Il's death on December 17, 2011.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Stumpf
Matt Stumpf is Asia Society D.C. Office Director and former Special Asst to the USAID Administrator, State Dept nonproliferation expert and MacArthur Foundation Program Officer for Asian Security.