By Park Byong-su and Ahn Chang-hyun, staff reporters
The South Korean government turned its attention quickly to the Barack Obama administration’s Korea policies after his reelection as US president on Nov. 7 (Korea time).
The Blue House responded positively to the news. In a statement, spokesman Park Jung-ha said the Blue House “welcomes Barack Obama’s reelection as president.” He also said it “recognizes how President Obama has valued the robust development of the South Korea-US alliance and coordination on issues related to North Korea and its nuclear program, and intends to continue cooperating closely for the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.”
President Lee Myung-bak sent his own letter of congratulations in which he wrote he was “confident the South Korea-US alliance will continue to grow and develop.”
The administration in Seoul is predicting continuity in Washington’s Korea policy over the years to come.
“There doesn’t seem to be any reason for a policy change in the broad scheme of things,” said a government official. “I’m certain we will be oordinating the course of future policy through the same dialogue channels.”
But other observers are cautiously predicting a more active tack from the Obama administration in its second term. The lack of progress on the North Korean nuclear issue over the past four years is likely to be something of a political millstone around the US president’s neck. Indeed, after the administration imposed sanctions on it as part of its “strategic patience” approach over the past four years, Pyongyang actually beefed up its nuclear capabilities, putting a centrifuge into operation and building a light-water reactor.
A government official noted that former US president George W. Bush switched to more active attempts at dialogue in his second term, which ending up leading to the Joint Declaration of September 19, 2005.
“Obama’s reelection could end up providing a new political impetus,” the official said.
The outcome of this December’s presidential election in South Korea is likely to be a major factor in the Obama administration’s next step. Despite a few differences with Seoul over North Korea policy, coordination between the two sides has generally been successful, and the Obama administration has allowed the alliance to take priority in its policies rather than making unilateral decisions. This suggests that Washington’s policy approach could be adjusted depending on whether the next administration in Seoul takes a hard line or a more conciliatory tone on North Korea.
Of course, North Korea’s behavior will also be a determining factor. Now almost one year old, the Kim Jong-un regime has expressed hopes for improved relations with Washington. It remains to be seen, however, how far it is willing to go in answering Washington’s calls for denuclearization. If it opts for its typical brinkmanship tactics - engaging in provocations in order gain leverage in negotiations - it may succeed only in killing any momentum in Washington for talks.
Indeed, Obama previously indicated his willingness to talk during his original 2008 run, saying he would consider meeting with the leader of North Korea. But these overtures gave way rapidly to a push for sanctions after Pyongyang carried out its 2009 nuclear test and rocket launch.
A government official said that although Washington and Pyongyang’s agreement on Feb. 29 of this year ended after the latter’s April rocket launch, it could also be read as evidence of the possibility for the two sides to find common ground for dialogue.
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