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The Personal Ties that Bind

DENVER – State visits to the United States by foreign leaders often carry a whiff of domestic American politics. The October visit of South Korea’s president was no exception. In addition to White House meetings, a formal State Dinner, a massive lunch in the State Department’s Ben Franklin Ballroom, and calls on congressional leaders, President Lee Myung-bak also addressed a joint session of Congress. Accompanied by his host, President Barack Obama, Lee also journeyed into America’s heartland to visit an auto factory in Michigan.

All of these elements of diplomatic protocol are familiar, but Lee’s visit carried with it something more: it was also a celebration of the relationship that the two presidents – and their predecessors – have forged to make the South Korean-US partnership one of the strongest in the world, rivaling any bilateral relationship that the US has in Europe or elsewhere.

When American and South Korean presidents sit together, they do not just discuss the Korean peninsula or northeast Asia; increasingly, their discussions take on a global character and reach. The emergence of this partnership, perhaps as much as anything, has signaled the long-awaited US shift from an Atlantic perspective to one balanced by Pacific interests.

A good test of a bilateral relationship’s durability is, of course, how long it has endured – and also how it has endured leadership changes. In the case of the US and South Korea, the relationship strengthened during the administration of a Republican, George W. Bush, with Obama’s Democratic administration sustaining that trend. Equally important, the relationship has deepened over the course of two ideologically different South Korean governments: that of the left-leaning Roh Moo-hyun, who worked effectively with Bush, and now under the right-leaning Lee, who was paired first with Bush and, for the past three years, with Obama.