May 31, 2023

WASHINGTON — Visiting foreign leaders often go for flattery when addressing the president at a state dinner. But South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol went straight to President Biden’s soft spot on Wednesday night, quoting Irish sayings at the beginning and end of his toast at a lavish state dinner at the White House.

Mr. Yoon thanked Mr. Biden and then quoted Irish poet Seamus Heaney, a presidential favorite who regularly makes guest appearances in Biden speeches. “Behavior that is admired is the path to power among people everywhere,” said Mr. Yoon.

As if that wasn’t enough, the South Korean leader later concluded his toast with what he believes is an old Irish saying: “A good friend is like a four-leaf clover – hard to find and lucky to have.” That generated “awwws” and applause from the audience.

It was all four-leaf clover and bonhomie on Wednesday night as the two pals put on an elaborate show of friendship while ignoring the recent tension over revelations of US spying on South Korean officials. Mr. Biden honored Mr. Yoon with just the second state dinner of his presidency, with Jill Biden treating their guests to a classic American menu with a Korean flair.

The Maryland crab cake was accompanied by cabbage, fennel and cucumber lettuce in a gochujang vinaigrette. The yellow pumpkin soup was followed by braised beef short ribs with butter bean grits, sorghum-glazed carrots and pine nuts. And dessert was a banana split with fresh berries, gingersnap cookie crumble and doenjang caramel.

Mr Biden has only recently revived the tradition of state dinners after years when the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic and his predecessor’s hostility to traditional US allies largely sidelined the practice. He started with a state dinner for President Emmanuel Macron of France in December, which was so crowded it was moved to a tent on the lawn.

For Mr. Yoon and his wife, Kim Keon Hee, the White House decorated the East Room with massive arrangements of cherry blossoms and hosted a head table featuring stars like actor Angelina Jolie and Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim, as well as lesser lights like Senator Chuck Schumer from New York, the majority leader who opted for a suit over a tuxedo. (“This is as tuxedo as I get,” he explained.)

Ms. Jolie, who brought her 21-year-old son, Maddox Jolie-Pitt, was briefed by Vice President Kamala Harris before the dinner. The actor declined to answer questions from reporters, although when asked about studying in Seoul, Mr Jolie-Pitt admitted it was “amazing”. Mrs. Harris brought her niece Meena Harris.

Among other guests was Samantha Cohen, the daughter of Michael D. Cohen, former President Donald J. Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer who turned on him. Mr. Cohen gave testimony that led to the recent indictment related to hush money paid to a porn star who claimed to have had an extramarital sexual relationship with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Biden invited a few Republicans, but unlike the Macron dinner, he included only those who are not Trump supporters, namely Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, Gov. Phil Scott of Vermont and former Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts.

Ms. Kim, described by some as the greatest female snowboarder in history, admitted she was nervous entering the White House. “I’m very nervous,” she said. She revealed that she has lost her Olympic gold medal.

“I wasn’t wearing my medal,” she told reporters. “I don’t know where it is.”