Congress says it’s wary of Park’s policy on North

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Congress says it’s wary of Park’s policy on North

A report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service disclosed Washington’s concerns about the Park Geun-hye administration’s North Korea policy, calling it a possible challenge in coordinating the two countries’ approaches in handling the security crisis on the Korean Peninsula.

The report, entitled “U.S.-South Korea Relations,” was published by the policy think tank of the U.S. Congress on April 26. It examined the bilateral relationship focused on strategic cooperation and the military alliance between the two countries over recent years and presented challenges expected in the future.

The report, which was released right before Park’s summit with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington next week, said it remains to be seen whether or not the U.S. government will fully support Park’s North Korea policy.

“The overall U.S.-South Korean relationship is expected to remain healthy under new President Park, although she has hinted at policy moves that could cause intense bilateral discussions, particularly over North Korea policy and the renewal of a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement,” the report said.

Because dealing with Pyongyang is the “dominant strategic element of the U.S.-South Korean relationship,” the report stressed the importance of coordinating North Korea policies between the Obama administration and the Park administration. While coordination of North Korea policy under the Obama Administration and the government of Park’s predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, was particularly close, Park’s untested policy could be a challenge for Washington, it said.

“Bilateral cooperation is expected to work well under President Park, but it remains to be seen whether her calls for a new combination of toughness and flexibility toward Pyongyang will challenge Washington and Seoul’s ability to coordinate their policies,” it said. “Perhaps most notably, Park has proposed a number of confidence-building measures with Pyongyang in order to create a ‘new era’ on the Korean Peninsula. Two key questions will be the extent to which her government will link these initiatives to progress on denuclearization, which is the United States’ top concern, and how much emphasis she will give to North Korea’s human rights record,” the report continued. “Likewise, an issue for the Obama administration and members of Congress is to what extent they will support - or, not oppose - initiatives by Park to expand inter-Korean relations.”

The report analyzed Park’s remarks during her presidential campaign and her contribution to Foreign Affairs magazine in September 2011 but reserved a conclusion on her North Korea policy.

The report also pointed out that the 60-year-old military alliance between Korea and the United States will also face budgetary challenges as the two countries struggle to cut defense spending. Seoul and Washington have had differences over sharing the costs of keeping U.S. troops on the peninsula.

The thorny negotiation between Seoul and Washington to rewrite a decades-old civilian nuclear energy agreement was also seen as a challenge. “South Korea reportedly has requested that the new agreement include a provision that would give permission in advance for U.S.-controlled spent nuclear fuel to be reprocessed,” it said. “The Obama administration has resisted this change, which would pose challenges for U.S. nonproliferation policy.”

The report also noted that Park appeared to be placing a priority on improving South Korea’s relations with China, which are generally thought to have been cool during the tenure of her predecessor Lee.

A Blue House official dismissed yesterday the concerns expressed in the report. “There was some skepticism at the very beginning about the Park government’s North Korea policy on trust building with Pyongyang,” the official said. “But we have provided substantial explanations, and it is my understanding that there is no doubt about it now.”

The official said the summit between Park and Obama will be an opportunity to resolve any remaining concerns because the two countries’ cooperative ties are currently stronger than ever.

By Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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