For the obsessive-compulsive bureaucrat, there is no more invigorating exercise than preparing for a state visit by a foreign leader to the White House. Every piece of diplomatic choreography -- from the South Lawn arrival ceremony to who sits next to whom at the state dinner -- is meticulously planned weeks in advance. Governments work tirelessly for months to hammer out policy agreements ahead of time. The goal is that, when the big moment finally arrives, nothing will be left to chance.

Both the United States and South Korea are hard at work on just such preparations at the moment, ahead of a trip to Washington by President Lee Myung-bak next week. Lee and President Barack Obama will go to great lengths to celebrate the strength of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. As they should: by all accounts, both in terms of personal chemistry between leaders and actual accomplishments, the 58-year-old relationship between the two countries has never been stronger.

There's just one problem -- well, two, actually. The issues of North Korea and of implementing the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement still require a lot of hard work by Seoul and Washington to get this meeting right. Without some clear progress on either issue before Lee arrives at the South Portico on October 13th, all the pomp and circumstance could lead to naught. 

Which would be a shame. During Lee's tenure, South Korea has emerged as a true global player, pursuing a green growth agenda, committing to reconstruction in Afghanistan, contributing naval assets to anti-piracy campaigns, and hosting the G20 summit last November; it will also host a global nuclear summit next year. Obama, for his part, will reiterate the strength of the U.S. commitment to Korea and to Asia generally. He will talk about the close coordination between the two allies in the face of North Korean provocations and their common global agenda in providing public goods to the international system. The two countries will use the meeting to celebrate a laundry list of successes: the transition of operational wartime command to South Korea, the relocation of U.S. bases out of Seoul, and a growing convergence on development assistance. 

Yet a considerable amount of work remains to be done. For starters, many Asian countries, especially in Japan, Korea, Australia, and several more southeast Asian states, worry about the staying power of the United States, given its financial difficulties. Obama thus needs to use next week's meeting to reassure Lee that he has no intention of allowing a power vacuum to arise in Asia. 

The challenge from North Korea is more complicated. Publicly, both leaders will recite the familiar line that Pyongyang needs to commit to denuclearization and to the promises it made in the 2005 Six Party agreement to give up all of its nuclear weapons programs. Behind the scenes, however, both sides need to coordinate their game plans as they try to coax Pyongyang back to the Six Party talks. Moreover, Lee must prepare for what seems an increasing possibility: that the Obama administration will engage in direct negotiations with the North.

Several recent developments signal that Washington is interested in going back to the table with North Korea. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited the North's vice minister Kim Kye-gwan for official, direct talks in New York back in August. This was followed by disaster assistance that Washington delivered to Pyongyang in the wake severe flooding. This month, Washington is reengaging with the North Korean army concerning the return of POW/MIA remains from the Korean War. And there is talk among insiders that another set of U.S.-North Korea talks about nuclear issues is likely to be announced after the state visit next week.

One cannot entirely blame Obama for having an interest in diplomacy with such an ornery and historically unreliable counterpart as Kim Jong Il. While the North Koreans have done nothing during his presidency to warrant confidence that they are willing to give up their nuclear weapons, the United States wants to avoid the kind of provocations that the North has issued in the recent past -- its torpedoing of a South Korean naval vessel in March of 2010, the artillery attack on a South Korean island last year -- or a missile test that could force Seoul to respond militarily. Returning to negotiations may not lead to the actual denuclearization of North Korea, but it could help contain the program keep Pyongyang from further work on a runaway ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program, which has gone unfettered since the end of the Bush administration.

As often happens, parking the issue of North Korea policy through a period of diplomacy has become the tactical default option. It is not the best solution; it is merely the least bad one at the moment. The Obama administration publicly bristles at the notion that its bilateral talks with Pyongyang are anything but exploratory, but don't believe it. North Koreans prefers direct talks to those that engage the other members of the Six Parties, and Washington is edging closer to that possibility.

Obama and Lee need to ensure that South Korea does not get left out of any return by Washington to talks with the North. To their credit, Obama and Clinton have so far maintained pitch-perfect coordination with Seoul by demanding that the North talk to the South before any U.S.-North Korea bilateral discussions, but maintaining this diplomatic two-step may wear thin on Pyongyang's patience, and it could hold a runaway nuclear program hostage to South Korean face-saving.

But that's not all: they also need to work toward passage of the Korea Free Trade Agreement. This deal would be the largest FTA enacted by the United States since NAFTA, and experts say it would increase both trade and U.S. jobs. Indeed, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, the FTA would increase U.S. exports by $10 billion annually. Yet the FTA, which was negotiated to successful conclusion during the Bush administration in 2007, has been the object of partisan wrangling for more than four years. Congress has not yet promised to approve the legislation in part because Democrats wanted first to see passage of Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, which helps American workers displaced by imports. But the Senate passed the TAA last week and the House should take it up soon. The White House submitted the Korea FTA to Congress this week, but deep mistrust between Democrats and Republicans could derail what would otherwise be a reasonable passage of legislation. Democrats want Republican approval of TAA before acting on the FTA.  Republicans want the FTA approved before acting on TAA.

Now it is a matter of timing. At this pace, the FTA might at best be passed while President Lee is in flight to Washington. Unless it is, a key piece of the visit -- a speech by Lee to a joint session of the Congress -- is unlikely to take place. So much for perfect choreography.

Still, the optics will be grand. A South Korean president has not received a South Lawn arrival ceremony since the time of Kim Dae Jung in 1998. Lee will also be feted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Chamber of Commerce, a foreign policy breakfast at Blair House hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies with U.S. foreign policy bigwigs, and, of course, the black tie state dinner on Thursday evening. There will likely be some kind of photo op scheduled to demonstrate the close friendship and familiarity between the two leaders and their families.

For the obsessive-compulsive preparing the stage, the situation is actually now post-panic. Success -- or failure -- hinges on Congress' will. And the success of any new negotiation with North Korea rests with the most unknown of variables: what those in Pyongyang are thinking. We have little control or insight into the latter. Regarding the former, given the way the American legislature has performed lately, success it is a difficult bet to make. Should the FTA not make its way through, Obama and Lee will have to grit their teeth and smile through the press conference questions about a loss that overshadows plenty of other gains.

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  • VICTOR D. CHA is Director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University. He is also Senior Adviser and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as director for Japan, Korea, and Australian affairs on the National Security Council from 2004 to 2007.
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