Barack Obama photo

Remarks at a State Dinner Honoring President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea

October 13, 2011

[President Obama's remarks were joined in progress.]

President Obama. --representing one of America's strongest allies and global partners, the Republic of Korea.

I also want to acknowledge two guests in particular: another son of Korea dedicated to peace and security, the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, is here; and our first Korean American Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, confirmed by the Senate today, Ambassador Sung Kim.

Now, I'm going to be very brief tonight because President Lee has had a very full day and a very wet day--[laughter]--as well as extended meetings and press conferences, a State Department banquet, and an address to the Congress, which I understand went extraordinarily well. There is a reason why people call him the Bulldozer. He is unstoppable. [Laughter]

Mr. President, today you have spoken with great eloquence about what America and our alliance has meant in your life and the life of your country. This evening I want you and your countrymen to know what Korea and its people have meant to America.

The essence of our alliance, I think, is embodied in a concept that is uniquely Korean. It doesn't translate that easily, but it reflects the deep affection, the bonds of the heart that cannot be broken and that grow stronger with time. Our Korean friends know it well: jeong.

In our country, we've felt this jeong in our vibrant Korean American communities, including in Hawaii, where I grew up, a melting pot of cultures that made me who I am and that taught me we can all live together in mutual trust and respect.

I felt this jeong during my visit to Korea on Veterans Day, the 60th anniversary of the Korean war, when our proud veterans of that war, both Korean and American, came together to celebrate a shared legacy: a free, democratic, and prosperous Republic of Korea.

And I felt this jeong in my friendship with President Lee. Mr. President, your life story--from crushing poverty to the Presidency--is an inspiration. Your success, Korea's success, speaks to the truth that with education and hard work, anything is possible. It's a spirit our countries share. You've described it in Korean, and in English it translates as: "Yes, we can." [Laughter] It sounds good in Korean too. [Laughter]

Finally, I would note that in our lives President Lee and I have both been blessed to find our better halves, leaders in their own right, advocates for women and young people, who we are proud to call our First Ladies. Mr. President, as we say in America, we both married up. [Laughter]

And so I want to propose a toast. I believe this is mine.

[At this point, President Obama was handed a glass.]

To our friends President Lee and First Lady Kim, and to their delegation, most of all to the enduring alliance between our nations, a partnership of the heart that will never be broken. Cheers. Gun bae.

[President Obama offered a toast. President Lee then made remarks in Korean, which were translated by an interpreter as follows.]

President Lee. First of all, Mr. President, Madam First Lady, distinguished guests, please allow me to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this warm reception extended to me, my wife, and my delegation. Thank you very much.

And Mr. President and Madam First Lady, my visit to Washington, DC, this time is especially special because before you are the President of the United States of America, you are a very close friend of mine. And this is how I consider you as well as the Madam First Lady. So this visit is very, very special for all of us.

Ladies and gentlemen, the President just spoke about the Korean emotion that we call jeong in Korean. I think indeed President Obama knows that deep inside his heart, he understands the essence of what we call jeong. Jeong can be explained in many different aspects, but one aspect of that is an individual that is humble, yet very strong inside. And I think President Obama exemplifies this trait of what we call jeong, and that is why we have a very special tie that we feel whenever I think about President Obama. Ladies and gentlemen, I'm a very, very honest guy--[laughter]--so what I say, I really mean it.

And also, Mr. President, I must thank you for one thing, because you have spoken so highly of the outstanding educational system of Korea and the dedication of its teachers and the determination of our Korean parents when it comes to educating their children. You have so many new teacher fans in Korea. [Laughter] And I have to be very honest with you. I think you have quite a number of them who like you more than they like me. [Laughter]

But, Mr. President, seriously, you do have a lot of teacher fans in Korea. But the real reason, when we look deep down inside, the reason why you are so popular among many Koreans is because everyone, including myself, are deeply impressed by your endless passion for learning and that this is very much a--very much reflected in your life story.

Mr. President, Madam First Lady, ladies and gentlemen, whenever I think about the United States and the people of America, I also have a very personal story of mine, which I would like to share with you briefly tonight. As you know, 60 years ago Korea used to be one of the poorest countries in the world. My family was exceptionally poor, and we really had nothing to eat, nothing to wear. We had to rely on foreign aid for many, many years. And I remember--I think I was about 9 or 10 years old--in my village there came an American missionary lady with boxes and containers full of used clothes that she would come to my village and hand out.

So being a boy whose only wish at that time was to own and wear a pair of blue jeans, I decided to stand in line, along with many people. But I was a very small and shy boy--hard to imagine--[laughter]--so a lot of people were pushing, and they were jostling about. So I ended up way at the end of the line. When my turn came, I went up to the American missionary lady, and I asked for a pair of blue jeans, to which she said--she just looked at me and said, "Well, I'm sorry, I'm all out of blue jeans." And of course, I was devastated. I was heartbroken. And this kind American missionary lady takes one look at me, and out of sympathy she hands me something out of the box. She handed me a small rubber ball. Now, this did little to console the boy who was crushed, and because, after all, what was I going to do with a rubber ball?

And so to this day--and I shared this story with President Obama, and I--when I finished the story I remember the President laughing a bit nervously though. But--[laughter]--I told him, I said, "Mr. President, as you can see, I do not owe the United States anything, except"--[laughter]--"except maybe for a rubber ball." [Laughter]

So, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. President, Madam First Lady, although half-jokingly I say that I do not owe the United States anything, but in reality, my country and my people owe you tremendously. Which other country--no country came to aid the Republic of Korea 60 years ago when my country was being attacked by Communists. No country sacrificed more than 37,000 lives defending freedom for the people of my country. So for that, for many, many years onwards, we will always, always be grateful to the American people.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, just last night, the United States Congress passed and ratified the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. I've said this before, but please allow me to say it again: I am deeply appreciative and grateful to the leadership of Congress, to all the Members of the United States Congress who supported this measure, and especially to the steadfast leadership of President Obama for pushing this through.

And also, Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, I know that there are those in the United States Congress who did not vote "yea" for this very important agreement. I think I see a few faces here, maybe--[laughter]--but I'm very, very confident, ladies and gentlemen, that in 1 year or even less, that these people who may be a little bit critical of this important agreement will say that they made a mistake, because they will see the visible results of this very important agreement.

And the thing that I want to prove the most, ladies and gentlemen, with the KORUS FTA is that many of those critics were saying that the KORUS FTA was somehow going to make people lose their jobs, but really the KORUS FTA is going to create a lot of good, decent jobs for the people of America. And this is a point that I want to prove by implementing this agreement.

And, ladies and gentlemen, you see Mr. King seated at the head table here. As I was receiving guests, and when he came up to me and I was shaking hands, I thought to myself, this is my chance to explain to Mr. King that the KORUS FTA is going to create a lot of good jobs for his people and the members of his union.

Well, the fact that Mr. King accepted the invitation to be here tonight just goes to show that he believes in the essence and the core values of the KORUS FTA, so I have no worries. [Laughter]

Mr. President, Madam First Lady, ladies and gentlemen, our relationship between our two countries began 130 years ago. Sixty years ago, our mutual defense treaty began what is considered to be one of the strongest military and political alliance that the world has ever known. Of course, we are here today to celebrate our journey of the last 60 years, one that has been--always been marked by triumphs, sometimes heartache, but always full of hope. And we are gathered here to reaffirm our friendship and to renew our common commitment towards our shared goals. I know that our relationship will go strong; it will become more mature and complete.

Mr. President, as we talked about over the last few days, we have many, many challenges that are facing us as a nation and as a member of the international community. We do not know when, what type of form, or how it is going to strike us. There is a lot of uncertainty out there. But I believe in our friendship, because when during--if we are faced with challenges, I know that we will overcome them and even come out stronger.

And I just want to emphasize once again, our alliance between the Republic of Korea and the United States ensures us that we are not alone. Neither is Korea alone or the United States. So we can have confidence that we will be able to overcome any challenges that may face us.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I see the guests today, and I think a lot of you are people who are very much liked by the President and the Madam First Lady. I also see a few of you who I always wanted to see, and so I'm very happy that I have a chance to see and meet with you tonight.

And so once again, Mr. President, Madam First Lady, thank you so much for this honor, and thank you for your invitation.

[President Lee spoke in English.]

Okay. I'm going to propose toast for us. [Laughter]

[President Lee continued in Korean, and his remarks were translated by an interpreter as follows.]

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me now in a toast: First of all, for the health and well-being of President Obama and Madam First Lady, and of course, for our everlasting friendship between our two countries. Cheers.

[President Lee offered a toast.]

Note: The President spoke at approximately 8:30 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations; and Kim Yoon-ok, wife of President Lee. President Lee referred to Bob King, president, United Automobile Workers.

Barack Obama, Remarks at a State Dinner Honoring President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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