U.S. President Obama and South Korean President Lee held their third summit meeting on November 19 in Seoul. Thousands of Koreans lined the streets of downtown Seoul to welcome Obama on his first visit to Korea, perhaps the warmest reception he received anywhere on his Asia tour. Korea was the last stop in his nine-day trip to Asia, after visiting Japan, Singapore to attend the APEC meeting, and China. While most Koreans welcomed Obama’s visit, some felt that the Korea leg was added almost as an afterthought. Unlike the visit to China, where he spent time with university students in a town hall style meeting, and a series of events in Japan, Obama had no special plans in Seoul other than the summit and a visit to U.S. troops. He also spent the night on an American military facility rather than in a hotel or diplomatic quarters in Seoul. Nevertheless, expectations were high for Obama’s visit.
Obama and Lee held their first meeting in London in April on the sideline of the G-20 Summit and their second in June during Lee’s visit to the United States. Both times, the issues of the KORUS FTA and the North Korea nuclear program dominated the discussion. They acknowledged the importance of the FTA—not only its economic benefits to both countries but also its significance as a symbol of the strength of the alliance—and vowed to work towards ratification. They also reaffirmed the security alliance between the two countries and pledged continuing friendship. For this summit, anticipation was running high as Koreans were anxiously waiting for a firmer commitment and stronger statement from the leader of the United States regarding a sweeping free trade agreement signed almost 29 months ago.