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(News Focus) Korea issue proves no hurdle to Obama's re-election bid

All Headlines 09:30 November 04, 2012

(Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series on the Korea issues as U.S. voters are about to choose between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney)
By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, Nov. 3 (Yonhap) -- In September, Lanhee Chen, the top campaign policy director of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, released a lengthy statement on "President Barack Obama's top 10 foreign policy failures."

Among them was a lack of progress in stopping Iran's nuclear program, weakened relationships with Israel and Pakistan, defense budget cuts and continued conflicts in Syria.

Obama's handling of the Korean issues was not on the list, however.

Many experts here agree that Obama has done a relatively good job over the past four years when it comes to the peninsula. Apparently, Korea is not an election issue.

Despite coming from different sides of the political spectrum, Obama has maintained good personal chemistry with his conservative South Korean counterpart, Lee Myung-bak. It has contributed to perhaps the best ever policy coordination between the nations, whose relations at times suffered troubles over ways to deal with North Korea.

"Presidents Lee and Obama more than fulfilled our hopes and expectations," said Thomas Hubbard, senior director for Asia at McLarty Associates and chairman of the Korea Society. He served as Washington's ambassador to Seoul from 2001 to 2004.

While many Americans are concerned about China's rise and frustrated with Japan's leadership vacuum, Hubbard said, the U.S. relationship with South Korea has been "valued as a welcome source of strength and stability."

At a summit in Washington in June 2009, Obama and Lee adopted a joint vision for the Seoul-Washington alliance, a symbolic declaration to highlight their efforts to upgrade the traditional military alliance to partnerships in the political, economic and cultural arenas and on the global stage.

The Obama-Lee meeting came just two months after North Korea's test-launch of a long-range rocket.

They agreed to break the cycle of Pyongyang's provocations, followed by talks and short-lived deals.

Responding to the North's two deadly attacks on the South in 2010, the Obama administration emphasized close consultations with Seoul.

Washington accepted Seoul's request to delay the transition of wartime operational control by three years to 2015. And the two sides launched the so-called two-plus-two talks among their top diplomatic and defense officials.

In 2009, South Korea decided to participate in the U.S-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) designed to halt ships suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction and related materials.

Another remarkable legacy is the ratification of a free trade agreement with South Korea.

"I think President Obama has from the first day in office sought to strengthen U.S.-ROK (South Korea) relations, and I believe he has been quite successful," said Alan Romberg, senior researcher at the Stimson Center in Washington. "His close relationship with President Lee Myung-bak has obviously been very important in this process."

Denny Roy, senior analyst at the East-West Center, also said the Obama administration "seemed to make an effort to treat Seoul as a partner rather than simply dictating policy without regard to South Korean input."

He added, "This was one of the better periods of U.S.-ROK coordination."

Many expect ta second Obama administration or the Romney government to seek to bolster ties with South Korea.

A major task, however, will be how to carry on the high standard set by Obama and Lee for smooth and productive ties, Hubbard said.

"This is no easy task," he said. "Transitions are often a difficult period in U.S.-Korea relations, and this transition could be doubly so if we wind up with new administrations in both countries at the same time."

Lee will retire early next year. South Koreans will pick their next leader in December. All three main presidential candidates -- Park Geun-hye from the ruling party and Moon Jae-in and Ahn Chul-soo from the liberal bloc -- support a more flexible approach towards North Korea.

North Korea is not the only challenge.

Key bilateral issues remain unresolved, such as Seoul's pursuit of uranium enrichment and reprocessing for civilian purposes, Washington's push to further open Korea's beef market and sharing the cost of stationing 28,500 American troops on the peninsula.

Hubbard emphasized the importance of preparing well for the first talks between the next leaders of the U.S. and South Korea.

"It can be a mistake to rush the process," he said, citing George W. Bush's difficult early meetings with South Korea's liberal-minded presidents, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, and Bill Clinton's with Kim Young-sam.



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