Seoul is wary of Republicans in charge of Senate

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Seoul is wary of Republicans in charge of Senate

The Republican victory in the U.S. midterm election is expected to influence Washington’s foreign policy and Seoul is preparing for possible adjustments in North Korea policy and Northeast Asian issues.

Republicans won control of the Senate and retained their majority in the House of Representatives. Although there is little possibility that President Barack Obama’s foreign policy as a whole will face a major shift in his final two years due to the Republican victories, Korean officials said the wrangle over North Korea’s nuclear program may be affected by the Republican control of the Congress.

The Republican Party may challenge the Obama administration’s nuclear negotiations with Iran, government officials said, and that could possibly affect North Korean issues.

“When the nuclear negotiation with Iran go smoothly, Washington would have room to deal with the North Korean nuclear crisis,” said a Foreign Ministry official. “And a successful negotiation with Iran will also create a precedent that a nuclear crisis can be resolved through dialogue. If the negotiations with Iran are derailed, the North Korean nuclear issue will become a matter of lesser priority.”

Concerns were also expressed that hawks in the Republican Party could challenge the “strategic patience” policy of the Obama administration toward North Korea. Sanctions on the North could be tightened and the North may try to bolster its negotiating power by demonstrating its nuclear power, officials said.

Republican control of the Congress can also affect thorny negotiations between Seoul and Washington to rewrite a decades-old civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement. Even after a new pact is concluded between the two governments, it still requires ratification from both countries’ legislatures.

Seoul’s negotiators expressed concerns that Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will likely become the head of the committee.

“He has proudly upheld the agendas of Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican who headed the Foreign Relations Committee and largely promoted nuclear non-proliferation,” said a government official. “He is expected to use very strict standards for the enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear materials, one of the main sticky points in the negotiation.”

Korean government officials yesterday tried to identify positions of the newly elected Republican members of the Congress.

“The government must explain its intention clearly to each lawmaker and persuade them,” said Kim Young-soo, political science professor at Sogang University. “Personal connections in academia and the private sectors must all be used.”

Seoul is also sensitive to the possibility that a Republican-controlled Congress will become friendlier to Japan. The Japanese government has consistently lobbied up and coming politicians in the Republican Party.

“As a result of Japan’s active lobbying, many in Washington think that Japan wants to resolve strained Korea-Japan relations and that Korea is acting stubbornly,” said a diplomatic source. “That view was more widely spread among Republicans.”

Professor Kim Hyun-wook of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy forecast a realignment in Washington’s policy toward China.

“A possible deal between Obama and the Republican Party is expected,” Kim said. “The Republican Party will likely demand more aggressive policy to check China by strengthening U.S. military presence and free trade influence in the Asian region.”

“The policy of promoting free trade can be advantageous to Korea, as it wants to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he said. “But Korea should also prepare a strategy because the United States can be more aggressive in deploying the THAAD [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] missile system to South Korea in order to check China.”

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