Tuesday’s ceremony was clearly designed to symbolize the unity and determination of the two countries' alliance at a time when North Korea has said it will expand its nuclear programs and is reportedly preparing to test a missile which could reach Alaska.
To underscore the message of unity, in his opening remarks President Obama announced that First Lady Michelle Obama was “looking forward” to hosting Mrs. Lee. After the session, Messrs. Lee and Obama were slated to have lunch with Vice President Biden and other aides in the Old Family Dining Room on the second floor of the White House.
The men broke little policy ground in their appearance. As they spoke, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel stood under the colonnade linking the West Wing and the residence, working on his BlackBerry. National Security Advisor James Jones chatted a few feet away.
Obama said a nuclear armed North Korea poses “a grave threat” to the world and said “we are going to break” the pattern of North Korea being rewarded for threatening actions. Lee thanked the United States for its “selfless sacrifice” in defending his nation and said “under no circumstances” would North Korea be allowed to possess nuclear weapons.
Unlike Obama’s prime time East Room press conferences, there were a smattering of empty seats at Tuesday’s gathering -- both among the chairs reserved for journalists from South Korea and in the section for the domestic press corps.
With birds chirping in the background, both South Korean and US reporters focused their questions on President Obama. Asked about the aftermath of Iranian elections, he said “something has happened in Iran” with voters more willing to question the government’s “antagonistic postures towards the international community.” While saying he wanted to avoid being seen as meddling in Iranian affairs, Obama added that, “I stand strongly with the universal principle that people’s voices should be heard.”
He ducked a question on when a trade deal between the US and North Korea would be implemented. Obama has said it does not adequately deal with automotive trade issues between the two countries. “Once we have resolved some of the substantive issues, then there is going to be the issue of political timing,” Obama said.
When asked about the financial regulation plans the administration will formally unveil on Wednesday, the president said “I don’t want to step on my announcement tomorrow.” But he added that the administration would put forward a “very strong set” of regulatory measures that would be “a heavy lift’ to get through Congress.
And then, 28 minutes after their appearance began, the two president’s walked out of the Rose Garden and down the colonnade to the residence for lunch, followed by a long line of male aides in dark blue suits and a lonely female aide in a summery white outfit.