On November 19, 2009 President Obama and President Lee Myung-Bak of the Republic of Korea held a joint press conference. You can see the video of the conference on youtube and read the official transcript here.
Obama had plenty of embarrassments on his Asia tour. In Japan, Obama took a deep bow to their emperor and got an imperial snub when the emperor didn't reciprocate. Ouch!
His visit to China was almost as humiliating. About the only thing that was accomplished is that China's leader Hu Jintao showed Obama who the boss man was.
Good thing Korea was on the last leg of Obama's trip because things didn't get any better. Lucky for Obama that most people (except me!) didn't notice how bad he got nuked during a joint press conference (for the good stuff go to about the 16 minute mark on the video).
The following is a chronological analysis of the last part of the press conference.
Obama and Lee were asked a question about the free trade agreement that Bush tried and failed to get with Korea.
And both of you mentioned the result of your talks, but what kind of things did you discuss regarding the KORUS FTA?
It almost seemed as if Lee knew that a setup was coming because he relinquished the question to Obama. Perhaps Lee was smart enough to know that if he talked second it would allow him to have the last word on the subject because the press conference was nearing its time limit. Julianna Goldman handed the hot potato to Lee, and Lee quickly passed it to Obama.
PRESIDENT LEE: And as for the KORUS FTA, I'm sure President Obama will be making a comment, so I'll just listen.
Obama had no choice but to take the question so he did by saying "we" (does that mean all of the U.S. or just the elites who rule our country) are committed to moving the free trade agreement forward. Then Obama stepped into an even bigger quicksand pit. After rambling for quite awhile about our inability to do anything about Iran, Obama addressed the trade question:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: With respect to the United States, I think it's important to understand — and I shared this with President Lee — that American companies and workers are very confident in our ability to compete and we recognize that there's not only a economic but also a strategy interest in expanding our ties to South Korea. There is obviously also a concern within the United States around the incredible trade imbalances that have grown over the last several decades. Those imbalances are not as prominent with Korea, but there has been a tendency I think to lump all of Asia together when Congress looks at trade agreements and says it appears as if this is one-way street.
So, in Obama's opinion, Korea is not part of the problem when it comes to trade imbalances in Asia. He lets Lee totally off the hook by claiming that Korea is an example of an Asian nation that doesn't have one sided trade policies with the U.S.
Obama definitely didn't do his homework before coming to Asia. He doesn't seem to grasp the huge problem were are having with trade deficits and doesn't seem to know basic facts. Statistics indicate that contrary to Obama's opinion, trade with Korea is significant and very one sided. Compared to all countries contributing to the U.S. Deficit, South Korea is #13. Taiwan is next followed by the United Kingdom. The table below shows the deficit of several Asian nations in millions of dollars for 2009 according to Part B Exhibit 14 at the census bureau website: U.S. Trade Deficit for 2009 (millions of dollars)
How is this for a trade imbalance? South Korea exported 600,000 cars to the U.S. while we exported 7,000 cars to Korea.
The nuclear bomb comes from Julianna Goldman of the Bloomberg News. She times the delivery to perfection by asking two questions — the first one was a rather generic question to Obama about nuclear weapons in Iran, followed by the haymaker on free trade for Lee. The question was for Lee but it was a not-so-subtle way of showing the world how ignorant Obama was concerning Korean trade issues.
I think that we've got a question. Julianna.
Q: Thank you, Mr. President, President Lee. President Obama, it appears that Iran has rejected the international offer on its nuclear problem. What are the severe consequences that you threaten, and when will we see them?
And for President Lee, are you willing to open up your market to U.S. automobiles to get the Korean free trade agreement moving again?
It's worth noting that Goldman's question about US made autos comes right after Obama blathered about how fair our trade is Korea. Lee will have to explain why it's fair for Korea to export their cars to the U.S. while severely restricting U.S. car sells in Korea. His job was made much easier when Obama said that there were no imbalances — all Lee had to do was agree!
PRESIDENT LEE: For me, Korea and the United States, the facts are clear, trade imbalances between our two countries is not great. I think it is safe to say that we have almost a balanced account between Korea and the United States. Of course, when Korea was a closed economy with protectionist measures, there were some trade imbalances. But compared to countries like China and Japan, the trade imbalances between our two countries is very miniscule.
So, Lee said that as far as he is concerned, trade between Korea and the U.S. is A-OK. In effect he said that Korea isn't about to allow us to sell our cars there, especially since we are so willing to allow Korea to export as many Hyundais and Kias as they can make. Lee told Obama that before the U.S. talks to him about unfair trade with Korea we better work on our imbalances with China and Japan first — which is an interesting way of laughing Obama off, especially since about all China and Japan gave Obama in terms of concessions was a pat on the head.
That first youtube video is the official Whitehouse version. It doesn't show Obama in the picture when Lee is making his statement. MSNBC has their own video which gives a slightly different perspective of the two men. Although it pans away from Obama when Lee begins talking, you can see both of them as Lee continues. Lee seems to be having a jovial good time slapping Obama around. Obama gives Lee the cold stare and looks like he wants to reach over the podiums to strangle Lee. It's good Obama showed some displeasure with Lee but it came way too late to salvage the situation.
For a good summary and different perspective of Obama's Asian tour read Germany's Spiegel Magazine: "Obama's Nice Guy Act Gets Him Nowhere on the World Stage". The Korea Times weighs in with an article called: "Why Are American Cars Unpopular Here?".