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(News Focus) Park faces key tasks on relations with N. Korea, regional powers
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- As South Korea's new leader, Park Geun-hye has a raft of challenges on diplomatic and national security fronts from fashioning an effective strategy on North Korea to reinforcing Seoul's ties with Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, experts said Sunday.

   The South Korea-U.S. alliance has come under renewed scrutiny, a natural development after a power transition on either side. Many agree that making sure Seoul and Washington stay on the same page in handling a nuclear-armed North Korea is a top priority.

   "Confirming the comprehensive nature of the Korean-American partnership is the most important item on the agenda, including the political, economic and security dimensions," said Alan Romberg, the director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center. "Obviously, there is a relatively urgent issue about dealing with North Korea."

   U.S. President Barack Obama's dispatch of his national security team to Park's inauguration in Seoul is understood to reflect such a view.

   The delegation is headed by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and includes Daniel Russel, the senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.

   Their visit would provide a chance for the Obama team to have face-to-face consultations with Park and her top aides.

   Indeed, North Korea's long-range rocket launch in December and nuclear test two months later reminded the world of the grim reality on the divided peninsula.

   At the same time, questions have deepened about Obama's so-called strategic patience of waiting for Pyongyang to first take serious steps toward denuclearization and a similar approach by Park's predecessor Lee Myung-bak.

   Park's concrete North Korea policy remains unclear, although she is said to disapprove of both the "sunshine policy" by the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, and the Lee government's tough stance.

   In an op-ed piece in the Foreign Affairs magazine last year, Park raised a rather vague concept of "trustpolitik."

   "In order to transform the Korean Peninsula from a zone of conflict into a zone of trust, South Korea should adopt a policy of 'trustpolitik,' especially mutually binding expectations based on global norms," she said.

   A number of pundits in Washington admit that they are still trying to fathom out Park's strategy on Pyongyang.

   In the early months in office, they point out that Park will also have to deal with several sensitive issues in relations with the Obama administration.

   "To be sure, the U.S.-ROK (South Korea) bilateral agenda in the coming months will be a challenging one, beginning with North Korea," Evans Revere, a senior director of the Albright Stonebridge Group, said.

   Renegotiating a pact on civilian nuclear cooperation is among other priority issues on the bilateral agenda, he added.

   Seoul's pursuit of expanding its non-military nuclear programs to match its enhanced status in the nuclear energy field is related with Washington's proliferation concerns around the world.

   The bilateral pact, signed in 1974, is set to expire next year, meaning the two sides will have to reach a deal this year.

   Seoul and Washington are also bracing for another round of tough negotiations on sharing costs for the stationing of U.S. troops in Korea. The Pentagon is sharply cutting its spending amid efforts to reduce federal debts.

   But few expect serious problems between the two nations in dealing with the issues, given the stature of the alliance, which has weathered many crises for decades and Park's conservative policy.

   Michael Green, the senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the Seoul-Washington alliance has matured enough to handle such issues in a smooth manner.

   "Washington will have high confidence in Madame Park's alliance credentials," he said.

   On South Korea's relations with two neighboring powers -- China and Japan -- Park is apparently inheriting more burdens than assets from her predecessor.

   The Lee administration is accused of having placed far more emphasis on the alliance with Washington than partnerships with Beijing with growing economic and military influence.

   South Korea's relations with Japan have soured amid Seoul's determined stance on Tokyo's territorial claim.

   "I would hope that President Park will reach out to Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and China's (leader-in-waiting) Xi Jinping quickly, so that she can ascertain for herself how best to build strong relations with Tokyo and Beijing," Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, said.