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(News Focus) In second term, Obama faces tough issues with Seoul

All Headlines 04:52 January 23, 2013

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, Jan. 22 (Yonhap) -- In the coming weeks, the world will get more hints of the Obama administration's second-term diplomatic strategy as the nominees for secretaries of state and defense testify at Senate confirmation hearings.

In his inaugural speech this week, Obama made clear that he would continue efforts for stronger alliances abroad and engagement with enemies. He did not elaborate in his 15-minute address, which focused on a broader vision for America and a call for national unity.

But observers are paying keen attention to the fresh line-up of Obama's national security team.

The Senate is scheduled to hold a confirmation hearing for Sen. John Kerry, nominated to be the secretary of state, on Thursday and former Sen. Chuck Hagel, tapped to lead the Pentagon, a week later.

"Their confirmation hearings will provide a good opportunity to get a glimpse of the second Obama administration's foreign policy direction," a South Korean diplomat here said, requesting anonymity "They are expected to detail their views on pending global issues, including the Korean Peninsula."

Among the urgent diplomatic tasks for Obama is to lay the groundwork for a close partnership with the incoming South Korean administration.

South Korea is a key regional ally of the U.S., which has been seeking to rebalancing its diplomatic efforts towards Asia.

Obama, beset by troubles abroad, has managed Washington's ties with Seoul relatively well.

Experts expect more challenges in the bilateral relations amid Washington's urgent push to slash its defense budget.

"The fundamentals of the alliance will remain strong, but there could be changes instituted by the (incoming) secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel," said Larry Niksch, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Given his view that the Pentagon is bloated and the U.S. is over-extended militarily, Hagel will put heavy pressure on South Korea to shoulder more of the burden, according to Niksch.

Seoul and Washington are bracing for another round of sensitive talks this year on how to share the cost of stationing 28,500 American troops on the peninsula.

Concerns also persist over South Korea's plan to regain wartime operational control of its troops from the U.S., which will lead to the demise of the Combined Forces Command, a longstanding control tower of joint military operations.

"Hagel will not favor another postponement of the schedule," Niksch said.

Another sticking point is Seoul's push to expand its non-military nuclear program, which Washington considers a nonproliferation issue.

Under a nuclear energy cooperation agreement signed in 1974, South Korea is banned from reprocessing spent fuel and enriching uranium. The pact expires in 2014.

Kerry has not expressed an explicit position on the matter in public.

His strategy on North Korea remains uncertain as well, although he is known to have a good understanding of the issue.

A joint strategy on Pyongyang between Seoul and Washington will come under renewed scrutiny as South Korean President-elect Park Geun-Hye is open to the resumption of inter-Korean economic projects and humanitarian aid.

Many agree that North Korea's repeated provocations have helped bring together South Korea and the United States through Obama's first term. A move toward dialogue with Pyongyang by either side, however, may drive a wedge between the two sides, they say.

Ken Gause, director of CNA Strategic Studies' International Affairs Group, emphasized the two sides need to work out a realistic joint approach towards the nuclear-armed North.

"I think the U.S. needs to review its North Korea policy," he said. "A North Korea policy that begins and ends with dismantling Pyongyang's nuclear program will not work. North Korea will not engage if that is all that is on the table."



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