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(News Focus) (US election) Second Obama gov't faces multiple challenges on Korea

All Headlines 15:03 November 07, 2012

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7 (Yonhap) -- In the next four years, re-elected U.S. President Barack Obama will face many challenges that may overshadow his accomplishments in the alliance with South Korea, experts said Wednesday.

Obama's first tenure was beset by a host of diplomatic troubles including Iran's nuclear program, bloodshed in Syria and territorial disputes in Asia.

A solid alliance with Seoul provided the Obama administration with relative stability on the diplomatic front, buttressing Washington's pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region.

On the South Korean side, improved ties with Washington spurred its efforts to play a bigger role on the world stage.

At question is whether the relationship will continue to grow under the second Obama administration. Obama's new South Korean counterpart will be decided in December.

Scott Snyder, senior researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), said the two sides will inherit the current stable relationship but should prepare for possible bumps in the road.

"There are also some notable challenges that, if managed poorly, could test recent advances in the U.S.-ROK (South Korea) relationship," Snyder said in a report emailed to Yonhap News Agency.

The first task will be the coordination of strategy on North Korea, which has often emerged as a source of rifts between the allies, with a new South Korean president from either side.

Obama has moved in lockstep with South Korea's outgoing president Lee Myung-bak against the North's nuclear program and provocations.

All of South Korea's three main presidential candidates -- Park Geun-hye from the conservative ruling party and Moon Jae-in and Ahn Chul-soo from the liberal camp -- strongly indicated they will seek to engage Pyongyang.

"First and foremost, the movement to the middle by the three leading South Korean candidates suggests a more moderate approach to North Korea," said Gordon Flake, executive director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation.

He raised the possibility Seoul may push to restart tourism to Mount Kumgang in North Korea and to expand humanitarian aid and economic cooperation.

"Coordinating these efforts in the face of likely continued North Korean intransigence on its nuclear program will provide an early test for diplomats in Washington and Seoul," Flake said.

Bruce Klingner, senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said there may be "some changes in the implementation of the policy toward Pyongyang" as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly prepares to quit.

"The expected departure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will remove the strongest advocate for a firm policy toward North Korea," he said.

Among possible candidates to replace Clinton are U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"Her potential replacements, particularly Senator John Kerry, would favor a more energetic outreach to the North, possibly with fewer conditions," Klingner said.

There will not be changes in the overall U.S. policy toward North Korea nor in the long-standing U.S. support of the alliance and overall relationship with the Republic of Korea. However, there may be some changes in the implementation of policy toward Pyongyang.

Seoul and Washington are also braced for thorny negotiations on key bilateral issues, which they have put on the back burner.

Recently, the two sides spent more time and energy in narrowing differences over Seoul's pursuit of longer-range ballistic missile than handling the issue of a bilateral civilian nuclear energy cooperation pact to expire in early 2014.

South Korea is seeking more non-military nuclear activities, including the enrichment of uranium and reprocessing of spent fuel rods.

"There is currently not an easy way to solve this issue, which, if politicized, could become a source of major conflict between Washington and Seoul," Snyder from CFR said. "Much will depend on whether the United States is willing to make adjustments in its nonproliferation policies to accommodate Korean interests, or whether U.S. nonproliferation interests ultimately serve as constraints that will limit the development of South Korea's nuclear program."

Other tough bilateral issues include how to divide the cost of stationing U.S. troops on the peninsula in coming years and Washington's efforts to further open South Korea's beef market.

Korea watchers agree to the importance of close consultations on the pending matters at an early date.

The first summit between Obama and South Korea's new president, expected to be held in March or April, will apparently set the tone for the overall Seoul-Washington relations, they added.



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