SEOUL, S KOREA - SOUTH Korea's new conservative president left on Tuesday for summit meetings in the United States and Japan, promising a new era of 'pragmatic diplomacy' after a decade of liberal rule under his predecessors.
'I will open a new era of pragmatic diplomacy sought by the new government and come back with the expected results,' Lee Myung Bak said in a statement before departing on his first overseas trip as president.
Mr Lee said he would further strengthen the traditional friendship with the US and 'endeavour to foster future-oriented friendly relations with Japan'.
He will meet US President George W. Bush at Camp David on Friday and Saturday, becoming the first South Korean leader to be invited to the rustic presidential retreat.
The summit is expected to be more convivial than the meetings between Mr Bush and Mr Lee's predecessor Roh Moo Hyun.
Mr Roh signed a sweeping free trade agreement (FTA) with the US and sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, but he and Mr Bush often looked uneasy in each other's company.
Efforts to scrap North Korea's nuclear programmes and to ratify the FTA are expected to top the agenda, along with ways to share the cost of realigning US forces on the Korean peninsula.
The US military has been stationed in the South ever since the 1950 to 1953 war against the North and China. It currently has around 28,000 troops there.
But a six-nation pact envisages normalised diplomatic relations, a formal peace pact and major economic aid if North Korea gives up all its nuclear weapons and related material.
Pyongyang has bitterly attacked Mr Lee's new policy of linking Seoul's major economic aid to progress on denuclearisation.
Mr Lee said on Sunday the North was trying to ignore South Korea and work with the US on a nuclear deal, but its strategy would not succeed.
The two leaders are expected to discuss a US request that Seoul send a provincial reconstruction team of 200 to 300 people to Afghanistan and a small police force to train local officers, according to media reports.
Officials have given no details but confirm that Washington has requested personnel.
Hopes to ratify FTA
Buoyed by his party's general election victory last week, Mr Lee hopes to have the FTA ratified soon in his country's legislature.
But it faces tougher opposition in the US Congress, where senior members say it does not do enough to free up the auto trade.
US lawmakers also want Seoul to lift restrictions on the import of US beef as a condition for progress on the trade pact.
Total trade is worth an annual US$80 billion (S$108 billion), and some studies show this could eventually rise by up to US$20 billion under a free trade regime.
Upon arriving in New York, Mr Lee will meet business leaders and visit the New York Stock Exchange. He will have talks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and a group of Korean-Americans before heading to Washington on Wednesday.
Before his summit Mr Lee plans to meet separately with US Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, US Trade Representative Susan Schwab, a group of US experts on the Korean Peninsula and US lawmakers in Washington.
Mr Lee will then visit Japan on April 20 to 21 for talks with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda. He will also meet Emperor Akihito and appear on a TV talk show.
He and Mr Fukuda had what Tokyo called a 'very warm and friendly meeting' on Mr Lee's inauguration day, February 25.
The South Korean leader wants to ease relations with Japan, with ties no longer tainted by bitter memories of Tokyo's 1910 to 1945 colonial rule over Korea. -- AFP