Intimate Presidential toasts at State Dinner include meditations on the Korean concept of jeong...
Standing in the softly glowing East Room, filled with lush floral arrangements that featured hundreds of apples and chrysanthemums, President Obama and South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak toasted their personal friendship and diplomatic alliance at the beginning of the State Dinner. The two have met six times in the last three years, in Washington, in Seoul, and at G20 summits, and they described their relationship in intimate terms. President Obama spoke about "the bonds of the heart that can never be broken," while President Lee hailed his "great, close friend." (Above: The Presidents raise their glasses)
"The essence of our alliance, I think, is embodied in a concept that is uniquely Korean. It doesn’t translate that easily," Mr. Obama said. "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."
The two, both clad in tuxedoes, stood by the Head Table in front of the fireplace, and spoke to the 222 guests seated at round tables who would shortly be enjoying an elegant feast designed to pay homage to both American and Korean culinary traditions.
Mr. Obama said he has felt jeong in Korean American communities, in the "melting pot" of Hawaii as a child, and while visiting Korea, especially during his most recent visit, when he marked Veterans Day with Korean and American vets on the 60th anniversary of the Korean War.
"And I felt this jeong in my friendship with President Lee," President Obama said, and heralded his rise from a poverty stricken childhood to the presidency as "an inspiration."
"Your success, Korea’s success, speaks to the truth that, with education and hard work, anything is possible," President Obama said. "It’s a spirit our countries share. You’ve described it in Korean, and in English, it translates as: 'Yes, we can.'"
Mr. Obama got laughter and applause. "It sounds good in Korean, too," he added.
The President had opened by warning that his toast would be brief--President Lee had "a very full day and a very wet day," Mr. Obama said--and he finished by complimenting First Lady Kim Yoon-ok as a strong advocate for women and young people, just like First Lady Obama. Earlier in the day, as their husbands met in the Oval Office, the two First Ladies visited a Virginia high school, where they advised students to follow their dreams and persevere in their passions.
"Mr. President, as we say in America, we both married up," President Obama said. "And so I want to propose a toast --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."
Mr. Obama raised his glass, and all in the room followed suit, and clinked glasses. President Lee then took over the podium.
"My visit to you in Washington, D.C. this time is especially special because before you are the President of the United States of America, you are a great, close friend of mine," President Lee said.
He, too, spoke about jeong.
"One aspect of that is an individual that is humble and very strong inside," Mr. Lee said. " 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," President Lee added, to laughter. "So what I say, I really mean it."
He hailed Mr. Obama's popularity in Korea, then spoke at length about the US Korea Trade Agreement, passed on Wednesday by Congress. He praised Mr. Obama for pushing for the measure, and got applause. He said he could see some critics among the guests, but pledged that in a year or less they would say that “they made a mistake,” and the agreement will “create a lot of good, decent jobs for the people of America.”
President Lee closed by toasting the health and well-being of President and Mrs. Obama.
"And, of course, for our everlasting friendship between our two countries," he said, as he raised his glass.
Guests were treated to a reception in the State Dining Room following the dinner. The Ahn Trio and vocalist Janelle Monáe performed with her band. Guests included lawmakers, Cabinet Secretaries, some famous faces from the media, tennis legend Billie Jean King, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, high-profile business executives, the Korean delegations, and notable Korean Americans. Two guests got a Presidential shout out: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Ambassador Sung Kim, the first Korean-American ambassador to the Republic of Korea, who was confirmed by the Senate today. A report on the arrivals, with video, is here. The brief, soggy arrival ceremony under the North Portico is here. Details on Mrs. Obama's gown are here. Information on place settings and decor is here. The morning Arrival Ceremony is here. The Presidents' joint news conference is here.
*Photo by Pete Souza/White House