White House dinner icing on SKorea charm offensive

October 13, 2011 - 4:21 PM
Obama US South Korea

President Barack Obama looks on during his joint news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak,Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011, in the East Room of White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — First came an intimate dinner at a suburban Korean restaurant. Next, the all-out opulence of a White House state dinner in the East Room.

In between, it was lunch on the State Department's fine china.

President Barack Obama deployed maximum culinary diplomacy this week to signal his high regard for South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

Thursday's state visit by the South Korean leader got off to a soggy start under umbrellas at a pared-down South Lawn morning arrival ceremony. The usual 21-gun salute fell victim to the weather.

But inside the White House, it was full-speed-ahead with preparations for an East Room dinner adorned by fall mums and hydrangeas mixed with fresh apples.

The rain wasn't going to scare off dinner guests lucky enough to snag a ticket for Washington's most sought-after A-list event.

Trauma surgeon Peter Rhee, a member of the medical team that treated Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot in January, came in from Arizona. San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro cut short a trade mission to — where else? — South Korea.

Obama has developed a special rapport with Lee: The two clicked during Obama's first trip to Asia in 2009, and the signs of friendship were manifold during his visit to Washington.

Obama and Lee hopped into a limo and headed off to a Korean restaurant in suburban Virginia for dinner Wednesday night. And during dinner, Obama shared the long-awaited news — hot off his BlackBerry — that Congress had finished work on a free-trade agreement with South Korea.

Vice President Joe Biden got in on the charm offensive at a Thursday luncheon of lemongrass sesame chicken in the State Department's opulent Ben Franklin Room. He took note of Lee's nickname "Bulldozer" and said Lee, slight of build, doesn't look anything like an NFL linebacker, but had earned his nickname by taking apart and reassembling a bulldozer to figure out how to make it work better.

Biden called that a testament to Lee's perseverance and patience in pursuit of practical solutions.

Lee, for his part, made sure to point out that the bulldozer had been made by Caterpillar, an American company.

Michelle Obama got in on the diplomatic outreach, too, taking South Korean first lady Kim Yoon-ok on a morning field trip to a high school in Annandale, Va., that has a large bloc of Korean American students.

This was the first White House state visit to include a "tweetup," offering a few hundred Americans the chance to attend the morning arrival ceremony and live tweet about it. The tweetup was in peril when heavy rain threatened to turn the arrival ceremony into a smaller, indoor event that couldn't accommodate the "tweeps." But at the last minute, the rain eased up enough to allow the event to go forward outside.

"Yup. Totally shook hands with the President. Nbd," (no big deal), tweeted 23-year-old Alex Nagler, who came down from New York. Afterward, sitting at a nearby Starbucks in soaking shoes, Nagler reported, "It was nice to see what's purely a diplomatic event turned into something for the general populace."

Dub Pool, a 53-year-old church administrator from Annapolis, Md., chimed in with this tweet: "Stood in the rain 3 hrs at South Lawn of the White House. Soaked to the skin. Totally worth it."

Yup, Pool got to shake the president's hand, too. But he said it was a little tricky to fire off tweets in the rain.

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