In a packed House chamber, Lee Myung-bak, the president of the Republic of Korea, addressed a joint meeting of Congress this afternoon, telling lawmakers of his humble beginnings in the war-torn Korean peninsula as he spelled out the importance of the bilateral relationship his country shares with the United States.
“Your friendship – and our alliance – has been indispensible throughout this remarkable journey of hope, and this is why all of you should be proud of what Korea and the Korean people have achieved,” Lee said. “Our alliance will grow and evolve, and it will prevail.”
Just a day after Congress voted to approve a free trade agreement with Korea, Lee said that “the United States and Korea have one of the closest, most important economic relationships in the world.”
“We invest in you and you invest in us because we are interdependent. When we trade together, we grow together. When we build together, we rise together. And when we work together, we win together,” he said. “A new chapter in our relationship has opened. Our relationship has become stronger.”
The Korean president received multiple standing ovations from the Congress, the strongest of all when he paid tribute to four members of Congress – Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich.; Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.; Sam Johnson, R-Texas; and Howard Coble, R-N.C. - veterans of the Korean War.
“The strength of a country is not measured in dollars alone. Our mutual defense keeps us strong and it keeps us safe,” he said. “Ours is an alliance that is forged in blood.”
Lee told the lawmakers how his brother and sister were killed during the Korean War, and he recalled his time during the 1960s as a political prisoner, jailed because he demanded democracy and freedom. He told Congress about his journey from working his way through college and waking up at 4 a.m. every day to pick up trash to his rise as CEO of a global conglomerate with 160,000 employees.
“I was caught and imprisoned, but this only strengthened my conviction that universal rights such as democracy, dignity of man and human rights must never be compromised,” he told Congress. “I was able to escape poverty myself. But being able to contribute to my country’s growth will always remain one of my proudest moments.”
Lee said he recognized the reality that Korea has been split in two, but he said he will “never accept it as a permanent condition” and he said the North and South “must achieve peaceful unification.”
“The two Koreas share the same language, history and customs. We are one people,” he said. “My hope is that these people and all 70 million Koreans will enjoy real happiness, real peace.”
“A unified Korea will be a friend to all and a threat to none. … We therefore must achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and North Korea must give up their nuclear ambitions,” he said, inspiring another standing ovation. “Korea and the United States stand united.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Vice President Joe Biden sat behind Lee as the Korean president delivered his remarks in Korean. Lawmakers and guests listened to a translation through headsets.
Lee is the third head of state to address a joint meeting of Congress this year, joining Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (March 9) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (May 24).