Obama, South Korean leader toast close ties at state dinner

U.S. President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, 2nd left, host South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his wife Kim Yoon-ok, left, at the State Dinner at the White House Thursday in Washington.

Story highlights

  • NEW: Obama, Lee exchange warm toasts during White House state dinner
  • Obama calls the new trade agreement "a win for both our countries"
  • Lee predicts deal will mean "good, decent jobs for the people of America"

President Barack Obama and his South Korean counterpart hailed a new trade deal and close ties between the two countries at a state dinner Thursday night at the White House.

While Obama spoke of the strong bonds, President Lee Myung-bak said he will win over American critics of the pact, which was approved by Congress Wednesday.

The agreement is "going to create a lot of good, decent jobs for the people of America," said Lee.

The two leaders exchanged toasts in the East Room, which was adorned with apples and other fall decorations.

Obama praised the Senate's confirmation Thursday of Sung Y. Kim as the first Korean-American ambassador to South Korea.

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Lee spoke of his personal friendship with Obama and the debt his country has to the United States for its sacrifices in the Korean War.

Obama and Lee earlier Thursday said the trade agreement is promising for both economies.

Obama said he will sign it in the coming days.

"In short, this agreement will boost American exports by up to $11 billion and support some 70,000 American jobs. It has ground-breaking protections for labor rights, the environment and intellectual property, so the trade is free and fair. It will promote green jobs and clean energy, another area where we're deepening our cooperation," Obama said.

"And it keeps us on track to achieve my goals of doubling American exports."

Lee said he is "confident that the Korean National Assembly will soon ratify this very important agreement in the near future."

It is "an historic achievement that will become a significant milestone in our 130-year relationship," Lee said.

"This agreement will create more jobs, generate more trade and stimulate our economies. This free trade agreement will bring numerous benefits to our workers, our companies, our small businesses, and our consumers alike."

Congress voted Wednesday on a bipartisan basis to approve free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

Obama and Lee also said they will continue to cooperate on efforts with respect to North Korea.

"We agree that North Korea's continued pursuit of nuclear weapons poses a serious threat to peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and the world. We will continue to work towards denuclearization in the peninsula," Lee said.

Earlier, at a welcoming ceremony, Obama hailed Lee as a "good friend and partner."

"Our two nations have stood together for more than 60 years," Obama said. "Over the past two years, we've deepened our cooperation. Today, I'm proud to say the alliance between the United States and the Republic of Korea is stronger than it's ever been."

Lee said he had paid respects at the Korean War Memorial shortly before the ceremony, remembering the 37,000 U.S. service members killed during the Korean War.

"The Korean people have never forgotten what these fallen soldiers and their families gave up," Lee said.

Lee's visit includes several bilateral meetings with Obama, the state dinner, and an address to Congress, which Obama described as "a high honor reserved for America's closest friends."

Lee is a reliable ally for Obama, especially when it comes to U.S. policy on North Korea.

Increased tension between the Koreas has prompted the United States and Seoul to delay until December 2015 the transfer of wartime operational control of troops on the Korean Peninsula to South Korea.

South Korea has seen the North launch artillery fire at Yeonpyeong island and sink one of its warships, at which time the United States stepped up joint military exercises with the South.

A warming of relations between the Koreas has been a U.S. condition of resuming nuclear talks with Pyongyang.

In addition to coordinating responses to the shared threat of North Korea, Washington and Seoul are also working together on climate change, economic issues through the G20, and a nuclear summit scheduled for next year in Seoul.