SEOUL — Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said U.S. president-elect Barack Obama is a "transformational figure" whose election provoked an emotional response in the United States and will change the way the nation interacts with the rest of the world.

"The whole political environment changed last Tuesday night with the election of Mr. Obama," Powell said at a Korea Foundation forum on the new U.S. administration’s East Asia policy. About 150 people attended the event Friday at Seoul’s Shilla Hotel.

Powell, a retired Army four-star general and Republican who endorsed the Democratic candidate in the last weeks of the campaign, touched on U.S.-South Korean relations during his speech, but mostly spoke on Obama’s effect on the American psyche and the president-elect’s desire for international open dialogue. "America feels good about itself," Powell told the audience.

He added that Obama is "going to listen, to hear what you think. He wants to know what your goals are."

Powell said Sen. John McCain, a close friend of 25 years, would have made a good president. He decided to support Obama because of his "exceptional judgment," which he said was more important than experience, and because Obama was the right person to lead the United States at this point in history.

Powell said he watched the election results from his hotel room in Hong Kong, and called his wife and children in the United States when Obama was declared the winner. All of them were crying, he said. "It hit me like a bolt of electricity going through my body. It hit all of us that way," he said.

Powell said Obama ran his campaign like a military, using modern information technology and better strategies than McCain. Obama’s win shows that African-Americans are judged by their ability and not their skin color, though there are still inequalities between whites and minorities, he said.

"We have taken a giant step forward, but race is still a problem," he said.

He said Obama’s presidency will be marked by diplomacy and realistic conversations with other countries, including South Korea, which has a pending free trade agreement with the United States. The agreement has been signed but is awaiting approval by the U.S. and South Korean legislatures.

Powell said Obama has concerns about the agreement, particularly about South Korean automobile exports to the United States. Obama has to put America’s interests first, including those of the states most affected by high unemployment and the downtown of the U.S. automobile industry. "All I know is the president who is coming in will listen to South Korea, and knows that South Korea will listen to us as well," he said.

Powell, who was stationed at the Army base in Dongducheon in the 1970s, also said he believes a diplomatic solution will be found to prevent North Korea from producing nuclear weapons.

A North Korean diplomat said Pyongyang is prepared for dialogue — or confrontation — with the next U.S. president.

South Korean president Lee Myung-bak said he and Obama pledged during a phone call to work together to resolve the nuclear standoff.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now