Relations between Seoul and Washington have been tense in recent months, and thousands of extra police have been deployed in Seoul ahead of expected protests marking Bush's visit.
On a personal level, South Korea’s President Lee-Myung Bak is a strong ally of the United States and he told his cabinet on the eve of Bush’s visit that Seoul’s relationship with Washington “forms the backbone of South Korean diplomacy.”
But since assuming office in April, the South Korean leader has had to contend with fierce protests at home over his decision to lift a ban on American beef imports, in a bid to seal a broader free trade agreement.
The beef issue led to weeks of sometimes violent street rallies by thousands of Korean farmers, health workers, and their supporters. The original ban on U.S. beef was imposed following outbreaks of mad cow disease in the United States in 2003.
Rallies were fueled by a perception that the government had ignored public concerns and caved in to U.S. pressure. The situation was so bad at one point that it forced the cancellation of an earlier planned visit by the U.S. president.
The mood appears to be calmer now, but the South Korean authorities are taking no chances, deploying more than 20,000 police and soldiers on the streets of Seoul for Bush’s visit.
In spite of the expected protests, some 30,000 pro-American demonstrators gathered in the city today to welcome Bush on his arrival.
The U.S. and South Korean leaders are scheduled to hold formal talks on August 6 that will focus on trade and North Korea’s nuclear program. Bush will then address U.S. troops at the Yongsan base in Seoul before leaving for Thailand in the afternoon.
In Thailand, Bush is expected to draw attention to political repression in neighboring Myanmar and address the future of U.S. policy in the Far East.
Bush is due to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on August 8 in Beijing, where he will spend a record four days attending sports events and meeting senior officials.
The U.S. president has made a point of saying he does not want to politicize his attendance at the Games. But rights campaigners have expressed hopes that he will raise the issue of human rights in his talks with Chinese leaders.