President Obama is hosting President Lee Myung-bak of the Republic of Korea for a state visit of grand proportions. Lee will address Congress, attend a state dinner in his honor, and accompany Obama on a trip to Detroit to tour General Motors. The red-carpet treatment, the White House says, is fitting for a friendship such as Lee’s and Obama’s that stretches beyond diplomacy. But like so many friendships, a tinge of jealousy is never far behind. For one, Lee has no reelection to worry about because South Korean law limits each president to one five-year term. But South Korea is also emerging as a strong competitor in the global marketplace and “winning the future” Obama has only dreamed about. Here are five “How did you do that?” conversations Obama may have with Lee during the visit.
- 90 percent broadband connectivity. Only 65 percent of the U.S. population is connected to broadband Internet, according to The New York Times. Although Obama set aside a portion of stimulus funding for getting more Americans online, much of the money remained unused. The House on Oct. 5 voted to reclaim that money.
- 3.2 percent unemployment. While the U.S. struggles to bring unemployment below 9 percent, South Korea's rate is holding steady at around 3 percent. In fact, the Korean unemployment rate has remained relatively low throughout the global economic meltdown: It averaged 3.75 percent from 1999 through 2010.
- 63 percent college degrees. Only 41 percent of Americans ages 25 to 34 hold college degrees, as of last month. Globally, the United States now ranks 20th among countries with the most college graduates per capita, a category it used to be No. 1. The president often cites South Korea’s success in his education speeches; according to The New York Times, the two leaders discussed the role of teachers in society at a meeting in Seoul in 2009.
- $380.6 billion debt. South Korea’s sovereign debt is still far less crippling than the United States' $14.3 trillion. But, keeping the difference between the populations in mind, Lee must wrangle a debt worth 33 percent of his nation’s GDP, while American sovereign debt is only 8.6 percent of the GDP. Still, economists predict that South Korea's debt will fall to 20 percent by 2014 as a result of Lee’s plans.
- 30:1 car exports to imports. Let us clarify this: The United States exported 16,659 vehicles to South Korea in 2010, while South Korea only exported 515,646 vehicles to the United States. That’s about a 30:1 ratio, and one that Obama will be sure to mention when he tours the General Motors plant in Detroit on Friday. The White House hopes the free-trade agreement, passed on Wednesday, will balance that ratio, but South Korea’s comparatively small population will never provide the kind of demand they receive from the United States.