Buoyed by Seoul's decision to resume US beef imports, President George W. Bush and South Korea's leader Lee Myung-bak hold talks Friday on pushing ahead with a huge free trade deal and fortifying their half-century security alliance.
The meeting will also focus on a multilateral bid to end North Korea's nuclear weapons drive, as the Bush administration appears to be bending backwards to forge an agreement with the hardline communist state.
Eager to have the free trade and nuclear deals implemented before he leaves the White House in January 2009, Bush will welcome Lee at Camp David for the two-day talks, that are to include their economic and defense teams.
Lee is the first South Korean leader to be invited to the rustic presidential retreat.
Although the two have not met before, they share a business background, conservative free market principles and strong Christian values.
Ties between the allies have warmed since Lee took over the helm of the world's 10th biggest economy hardly two months ago.
Relations had deteriorated under Lee's predecessors Roh Moo-Hyun and Kim Dae-jung, both of whose unconditional support for North Korea had raised suspicions in the United States, which has 28,000 troops stationed in South Korea.
On the eve of the Bush-Lee talks, South Korea announced it has agreed to give US beef greater access to its market, giving a fillip to a free trade agreement signed about a year ago but unratified by their legislatures.
Washington wanted full access to the beef market for any ratification.
South Korea banned import of US beef in 2003 due to mad cow fears. It eased the ban in 2006 but effectively halted all imports last October.
"Both sides reached an agreement on gradual expansion of US beef imports," South Korea's Assistant Agriculture Minister Min Dong-Seok said in Seoul.
But US Trade Representative Susan Schwab said in Washington the agreement represented reopening the Korean market "to all US beef and beef products, from cattle of all ages."
She said "the major obstacle" to Congressional consideration of the FTA "is removed.
"The Administration will now work in earnest with Congress and the US agriculture, manufacturing, and services sectors to pass the FTA," Schwab said.
The agreement is the most commercially significant US trade deal in 15 years. The Democratic-led US Congress has been wary of trade deals negotiated by the Bush administration.
At a dinner late Thursday with business leaders, Lee was served US beef from farm-rich Montana.
"The ratification of the South Korea-US free trade agreement constitutes an essential part" of transnational community building, he said.
It would usher in a new era in bilateral security relations, "anchoring the military alliance on a firm social and economic basis," he said.
If ratified, the FTA will add about 20 billion dollars a year to trade between the two nations, said Dennis Wilder, the White House national security director for Asian affairs.
In a bid to mend fences with North Korea, Lee proposed Thursday the creation of the first liaison offices in the capitals of the two Koreas, which are still technically in a state of war after their 1950-1953 bloody clashes.
The offices in Seoul and Pyongyang would act as a permanent communication link, he told The Washington Post newspaper in an interview.
Lee has promised a firmer line on North Korea, linking aid to nuclear disarmament in a move that has angered the hardline communist state.
A furious Pyongyang has threatened to turn its neighbor into "ashes" after kicking South Korean officials out of a joint industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong.
Bush and Lee would discuss the latest efforts being made to prod North Korea to disband its nuclear weapons program under an aid-for-denuclearization pact adopted by the United States, China, the two Koreas, Japan and Russia.
In a turnaround Thursday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hinted that US sanctions against North Korea could be removed even before its nuclear programs or proliferation activities were verified independently.
"Verification can take some time," she told reporters.
North Korea has been pushing the United States to remove it from the blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism.