April 15, 2013

Park, Obama Face Crucial Test on Chemistry amid N.K. Headache

WASHINGTON, April 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her American counterpart, Barack Obama, will test their personal chemistry during a summit at the White House next month, Korea specialists said Monday.

The meeting, scheduled for May 7, is expected to set the tone for overall relations between the allies over the next few years amid North Korea's continued saber-rattling.

The two sides also face a host of thorny bilateral issues such as setting new rules for civilian nuclear cooperation and deciding ways to share the costs for American troops in South Korea.

The experts emphasized the significance of the first face-to-face talks between the leaders.

"This is a good opportunity for President Obama and President Park to build a personal relationship," said Evans Revere, formerly a senior State Department official handling East Asian and Pacific affairs.

"The focus is going to be on a range of issues," added Revere, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's going to be on what do we need to do to keep the alliance strong and to maintain deterrence."

It's unclear whether North Korea will put its military threats into action before the Park-Obama summit.

In any case, the leaders will have to assure that the alliance stays strong and that they can engage in dialogue with North Korea if it's willing to do so on the basis of denuclearization, he added.

The new South Korean president has stated that her administration will seek to build trust with North Korea.

In terms of sending a strong message to the North, Park's approach is similar to that of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, but she seems "more willing to test the possibility of engagement" than Lee was, Revere pointed out.

A key task for Park is to win full U.S. support for her strategy. So far, the Obama administration has let Seoul take the lead in dealing with Pyongyang.

But with the North having upped the ante in its nuclear game, Washington is under pressure to be more active in trying to resolve the North Korea issue.

"The urgent need for rethinking the strategic approach to dealing with North Korea lends extra gravity to the May summit meeting between presidents Park and Obama," said Patrick M. Cronin, a senior analyst at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

"How these alliance leaders define their objectives, the expectations and trust they take away from their meeting, and, going forward, how they pursue a shared strategic reassessment and policy implementation will have lasting consequences."

North Korea may be a relatively easy part to the Park-Obama summit, given other sensitive issues with the alliance, the analysts agreed.

Seoul and Washington are running out of time to rewrite a 40-year-old pact on peaceful nuclear cooperation.

South Korea has been seeking U.S. consent for leaving the door open for Seoul to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel. U.S. officials are apparently concerned about a negative impact to the global nonproliferation regime.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed hope for an agreement on the issue before Park's trip to Washington.

The two sides also are bracing for a new round of negotiations on sharing the financial burden for stationing 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea. Some expect the talks to be very difficult as the U.S. is pushing to cut its defense budget.

Thomas Hubbard, former ambassador to Seoul, said he can't stress enough the importance of the first meeting between Park and Obama.

He recalled some difficult early meetings between the leaders of the two sides in the 1990s and 2000s -- Kim Young-sam and Bill Clinton, Kim Dae-jung and George H.W. Bush, and Roh Moo-hyun and George W. Bush.