President Bush and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak opened two days of talks on Friday focusing on North Korea's unfulfilled pledge to disclose its nuclear activities and a U.S. free-trade deal with South Korea that faces an uphill battle in Congress.
Bush hopes to strengthen sometimes-shaky U.S.-South Korea ties under Lee, a pro-American conservative who took office in late February and made the United States his first overseas trip. Their get-to-know-you meeting took on renewed importance when South Korea announced Friday that it would lift its ban on U.S. beef imports.
The dinner menu at the secluded presidential retreat in Maryland? Texas black Angus beef tenderloin.
South Korea was the third largest foreign market for U.S. beef before it banned imports in December 2003 over the possibility of mad cow disease. Its decision to end the ban removed a major roadblock to getting Congress to pass the free-trade pact, which Bush wants lawmakers to ratify before he leaves office. But even with the beef spat resolved, opposition from Democrats and automakers and a narrowing legislative calendar could push the issue into the next administration.
On North Korea, Bush is embracing Lee's get-tough rhetoric against its communist neighbor. But the talks between North Korea and the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea and Japan are at an impasse over how the North should make good on its pledge to declare its nuclear and proliferation activities.
Lee is the first South Korean president to be invited to Camp David, and the visit, under picture-perfect blue skies, was evidence of Bush's hope that U.S.-Korean relations will get even stronger under the new leader. Bush and first lady Laura Bush greeted Lee and his wife, Kim Yoon-ok, as they got off a helicopter that ferried them from Washington to the compound.
Bush started to climb into the driver's seat of one of the golf carts that are used to get around Camp David, then asked Lee if he wanted to drive.
"Yeah. Can I drive?" Lee asked, then moved quickly to the driver's side.
"I drive," Lee exclaimed, grabbing the steering wheel with one hand and waving with the other.
As the two drove past the media, Bush joked: "He's afraid of my driving."
The two leaders were to have talks Friday night and then more meetings on Saturday along with a brief press conference. They are expected to herald the beef deal, the culmination of lengthy negotiations.
The South Korean Agriculture Ministry said it will allow U.S. beef imports from cattle younger than 30 months. Younger cows are believed to be less at risk for mad cow disease. South Korea said it would allow beef from older cattle after the U.S. strengthens controls on feed to reduce chances of infection.
But even with that progress, the trade deal could face trouble as U.S. lawmakers, including Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, voice increasingly anti-free trade sentiments.
On Friday, Lee met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and with U.S. trade envoy Susan Schwab, who said the resumption of beef sales means that "safe, affordable, high-quality American beef will soon be back on Korean tables."
But Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman the Senate Finance Committee, said he will block consideration of the trade agreement until all cuts of U.S. beef from cattle of all ages are on Korean store shelves.
"Korea must provide full market access for all U.S. beef, and I believe this deal can get us there if the Korean government follows through," Baucus said. "I will closely monitor the implementation of this new import protocol, and I expect great results."
Lee, a former construction chief executive nicknamed "The Bulldozer" for his determination to get things done, has ended a decade of liberal rule in which South Korea sought to embrace the North and refrained from criticism. The relief in Washington has been evident in the Bush administration's praise of Lee's insistence that the North follow through on nuclear pledges before receiving aid from its southern rival.
Bush's meetings with Lee's predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun — elected on an anti-America platform — were often notable for their awkwardness, fueling the perception that the leaders did not like each other. Roh favored a "sunshine" policy that provided aid without demanding concessions from North Korea.
Lee's position on North Korea may turn out to be even tougher than Bush's because the United States is pressing hard for an agreement. Nuclear talks are stalled over whether the North will hand over a promised full declaration of its nuclear programs in return for concessions. The Bush administration apparently has decided that the declaration's exact contents are less important than an assurance that the nuclear negotiators can check up on Kim Jong Il's government to make sure it has told the truth.