Obama and South Korea's Lee to Tout Trade Pact at GM Plant

'As a former executive, President Lee will understand when I say that just as Americans buy Hyundais and Kias, I hope that South Koreans will buy more Fords, Chryslers and Chevys.'

President Obama will take his South Korean counterpart to Michigan on Friday to tout the benefits of a free-trade pact as well as his own auto-industry rescue in a key 2012 electoral state.

Obama and President Lee Myung-Bak, who shared a sumptuous state dinner at the White House on Thursday after a day hailing the U.S.-South Korea alliance, will tour a General Motors assembly plant in Orion Township.

The plant was saved by the controversial auto-industry bailout for GM and Chrysler that Obama ordered in 2009, and assembles the new Chevrolet Sonic subcompact car, originally engineered for GM Korea but now built in Michigan.

"Two years ago, during GM's bankruptcy restructuring, the plant the president will visit in Orion, Mich., was set to be closed down," a White House official said on condition of anonymity.

"The subcompact expertise and joint venture with GM Korea has saved the Orion plant and its 1,750 jobs."

The White House says that Obama's auto-bailout plan saved more than 1 million jobs of Americans working for auto firms and related industries throughout the industrial Midwest, a key battleground in next year's presidential election.

Since GM and Chrysler emerged from restructuring, the American auto industry has created 128,000 jobs, the official said.

The visit to GM also is symbolic, because at one point the long-delayed free-trade pact endorsed by Congress on Wednesday was held up by a dispute over auto-market access between Seoul and the Obama administration.

But the two sides eventually thrashed out an agreement on eliminating non-tariff barriers that restricted U.S. access to South Korea's auto market and raised the cost of producing American vehicles for sale there.

The deal will immediately reduce South Korean tariffs on U.S. autos by half, from 8% to 4%, and fully eliminate them within five years.

"As a former executive, President Lee will understand when I say that just as Americans buy Hyundais and Kias, I hope that South Koreans will buy more Fords, Chryslers and Chevys," Obama said at a press conference on Thursday.

'One Voice'

On Thursday, Obama and Lee praised the trade deal and spoke with what the South Korean said was "one voice" on the North Korean nuclear threat.

Obama said Lee's energy and enthusiasm fully justified his "bulldozer" nickname.

The U.S. president also said the trade pact will boost American exports by up to $11 billion and support 70,000 U.S. jobs.

Under severe political pressure -- as the U.S. recovery stutters and unemployment lingers at 9.1% -- Obama said the deal will help U.S. automakers and open Korean agricultural, aerospace and electronics markets.

Lee said he is confident the pact also will be ratified by South Korea's parliament in the "near future."

The leaders did not break new ground on North Korea, but their firm friendship, and the similarity of their language, reflected an apparently watertight U.S.-South Korean stance towards Pyongyang.

"Together we've succeeded in changing the equation with the North, by showing that its provocations will be met, not with rewards, but with even stronger sanctions and isolation," Obama said.

If Pyongyang "continues to ignore its international obligations, it will invite even more pressure and isolation," he said, while promising more opportunity if North Korea abandoned its quest for nuclear weapons.

'A Partnership of the Heart'

Before the state dinner, Obama and his wife Michelle, wearing a purple off-the-shoulder gown, greeted Lee and his wife Kim Yoon-Ok, wearing a traditional Korean Hanbok gown, under the North Portico of the White House.

Guests included U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, tennis great Billie Jean King and LPGA golfer Christina Kim, as well as top officials and business leaders.

Obama toasted the U.S.-South Korea alliance as "a partnership of the heart that will never be broken," while Lee said his nation will never forget U.S. sacrifices in the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011

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