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(News Focus) S. Korea vows stronger alliance in Obama's second-term
SEOUL, Jan. 22 (Yonhap) -- South Korea vowed on Tuesday to strive to build a stronger alliance with the United States as Barack Obama officially kicked off his second term, but some analysts see a series of sensitive issues topping the agenda of the allies.

   "The relations between (South) Korea and the U.S. are now in very good shape and our government will continue to make efforts to further enhance the bilateral relationship," Seoul's foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said, commenting on Obama's second-term inauguration.

   South Korea and the U.S. are expected to "smoothly" proceed with bilateral negotiations on a range of issues including North Korea, the renewal of the civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and a cost-sharing agreement for U.S. troops stationed in the South, Cho said.

   The alliance between Seoul and Washington has reached its highest point over the past four years, with diplomats from both sides describing it as the "strongest-ever" ties.

   They partly attributed the good relations to the personal chemistry between Obama and outgoing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

   With South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye set to launch her government next month with pledges for more engagement with North Korea than Lee, some analysts were worried that Seoul and Washington may find differences exist on sensitive issues and the tone of the relationship.

   In a meeting with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell last week, Park said that she will work closely with the U.S. to further upgrade the traditional alliance with Washington and to smoothly resolve pending issues based on mutual trust.

   "Looking back, I believe one of the most important elements behind the peace and prosperity (of South Korea was) the strong Korea-U.S. alliance," Park said.

   "The freedom and economic development that we enjoy now was not granted for free. They are the result of South Korea and the United States working together and overcoming challenges and difficulties together."

   The two sides should upgrade their ties to a "comprehensive strategic alliance of the 21st century," she said.

   Seoul and Washington have been in talks to rewrite an expiring nuclear accord. The 1974 agreement bans Seoul from reprocessing spent fuel because it could yield plutonium that could be used to build atomic bombs.

   Now, Seoul wants Washington to allow it to use a proliferation-resistant technology for enriching uranium and reprocessing spent atomic fuel, but Washington has been reluctant to do so.

   The two allies also need to come up with a new deal this year on how to share the cost for keeping 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea. The current agreement calls for Seoul to shoulder 42 percent of the total cost but Washington reportedly wants to raise the ratio to 50 percent.

   How to deal with Pyongyang has always been on the list of major challenges for new governments in both Seoul and Washington, but a U.S. expert said Obama needs to change his so-called "strategic patience" approach toward North Korea during his second term.

   The U.S. has maintained a policy of studied coolness toward North Korea until the communist regime shows its willingness to change its provocative behaviors through actions.

   "Strategic patience, strategic coma, whatever it is called, has allowed North Korea to patiently develop nuclear and missile programs," said Victor Cha, who was a top adviser on the Koreas to former U.S. president George W. Bush.

   Cha told a forum in Seoul that the U.S. policy "has not been working."

   "We need to do something else," said Cha, who holds the Korea Chair of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Relations.

   Whatever differences Seoul and Washington might have over key issues, Cha said, "The most important thing is that the Park Geun-hye government and the Obama administration should stay closely connected."