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April 30, 2013

Improving North-South Korean Relations May Depend on China, US Says

by Scott Stearns

South Korean President Park Geun-hye meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington next week for talks that are expected to focus on North Korea's nuclear program.   While the two leaders will discuss closer military cooperation, U.S. officials believe Chinese involvement is key to improving relations on the Korean peninsula.

South Korea's military remains on alert for a missile strike from the North.

"As long as North Korea does not completely withdraw its missiles, our army will keep our security posture high and closely monitor the North's movements," Defense Ministry Spokesman Kim Min-Seok said.

Kim Jong Un's threats against South Korea and the United States heighten the need for military cooperation between Seoul and Washington, according to the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.

"We may be entering a prolonged period of provocation from Pyongyang," the general warned. "Given the missile threat and Kim Jong Un's reckless rhetoric we have no choice but to improve our defenses."

Secretary of State John Kerry said President Park Geun-hye's future with North Korea may depend largely on China.

"She wants to reach out to the North. She obviously can't do that in the middle of this kind of process.  My hope would be that the Chinese will come to the table in a way that they never have before, that we can work with the Chinese to redefine what's in all of our interests."

Absent that, President Park has little room to maneuver, said American Enterprise Institute analyst Michael Auslin.

"Obviously this consumes her government from the beginning, and it changes all the calculations she may have had on diplomatic outreach, on economic reform," noted Auslin. "On anything she wanted to do, she has come in on day one with a newly-assertive, aggressive, unpredictable North Korean regime to deal with."

Auslin said that is all part of Pyongyang's plan.

"What the North Koreans are obviously hoping is that all the pressure will tame her.  Let's be honest about it," he said.  "They want to not have to deal with a strong, independent-minded president who may be deciding to ally more closely with the United States."

Which is why Secretary Kerry said it is so important to get China more involved.

"Absent China coming to that table, I believe President Kim Jong Un calculates, literally calculates, that 'I can get away with anything if China isn't going to hold me accountable,'" Kerry remarked.

Auslin said that strategy may be working on the South Korean president.

"She came into office talking about breaking the dependency cycle of just giving concessions to the North and getting nothing in return.  And yet after a few weeks of intense and increased rhetoric and concern about what the North would be doing, she has backed off and talked about now reaching out to them," he noted.

President Park's visit to Washington will also include talks on trade and civilian nuclear energy.