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US-South Korea relations strengthened by North's actions, report says

The U.S. Navy George Washington Strike Group and navy ships from South Korea train together in waters off the Korean Peninsula, Oct. 13, 2013.

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s continued desire to push the military and diplomatic envelope has only helped to strengthen ties between the U.S. and South Korea, a new congressional report says.

Just last week, a North Korean boat crossed the disputed maritime boundary known as the Northern Limit Line. According to the Congressional Research Service, these types of provocations — which include a third nuclear test in February 2013, and the withdrawal of North Korean workers from the Kaesong Industrial Complex last April — have led to increased cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea, to the point that Washington is comfortable with South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s confidence-building approach to inter-Korean relations.

Those provocations followed “extremely close” collaboration since 2009 over North Korea, following several years of differing approaches on how to handle Pyongyang.

“The experience of this close coordination in 2013 appears to have deepened the reservoir of trust between the two governments, to the point that the Obama Administration appears comfortable with letting Park take the lead in trying to encourage more cooperative behavior from Pyongyang,” the CRS report said.

Park, who took office in February 2013 and vowed to aggressively respond to North Korean attacks, has implemented a “trustpolitik” strategy with Pyongyang that separates humanitarian assistance to the North from political developments, and emphasizes a combination of toughness and flexibility in Seoul’s dealings with the North.

Her approach also includes “modest” confidence-building measures such as holding reunions between family members separated by the Korean War during periods when North Korea moderates its behavior, the report said.

The release of the CRS report came just days before a North Korean naval vessel crossed the disputed Northern Limit Line, the maritime border between the two Koreas, on the first day of the annual U.S.-South Korean Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military drills.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, the 420-ton North Korean patrol ship crossed the NLL three times between 10:56 p.m. Monday and 12:25 a.m. Tuesday, west of Yeonpyeong Island, the site of a 2010 North Korean shelling that killed four people.

South Korean military ships instructed the North Korean ship to leave the area and there were no further incidents.

There has been very little response from the South Korean government on the incident. A MND spokesman, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said the boat appeared to have purposely crossed the boundary.

He also said the exercises would not be altered because of the incident, and that South Korean troops had not been put on any special alerts.

U.S. Forces Korea would not address whether officials believe the incursions were intentional, or how serious of a threat they pose, saying by email that it “does not discuss operational or intelligence matters.”

The military also would not comment on whether the ongoing joint exercises were being affected, or whether forces were being put on alert.

The CRS report, released last Thursday, provides a wide-ranging assessment of issues affecting the relationship between the two countries, including the security threat posed by the North.

It said that poor relations between the two Koreas since 2008 have helped Washington and Seoul overlook differences in their top priorities for the peninsula — for the U.S., denuclearization, and for South Korea, reunification.

A potential source of disagreement is whether the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress will support Park’s future initiatives with the North. For instance, the report notes that while Park has expressed a desire to internationalize and expand Kaesong, such a move could conflict with congressional efforts to increase U.S. sanctions against the North.

The report also noted that planned South Korean defense budget increases have slowed significantly during the tenures of Park and her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak.

And while the two countries signed a new five-year defense burden-sharing agreement last month, South Korean opposition groups remain worried that the U.S. may use some of those Special Measures Agreement funds to finance the expansion of Camp Humphreys, even though SMA funds are earmarked for other uses.

SMA funds are intended to offset the cost of stationing U.S. troops in South Korea, and the latest agreement includes new measures intended to increase transparency of U.S. use of those funds.

The Humphreys expansion is the centerpiece of a massive plan to relocate U.S. Forces Korea troops to regional hubs. The relocation has been repeatedly delayed since its initial target date of 2008 due to slow construction and what the CRS described as “South Korean protests of financial difficulties in paying the ROK (South Korean) share of the relocation costs.”

The move is now scheduled to take place in 2016, though the CRS report said that “some individuals involved with the move speculate that it will not be completed until 2020.”

The report said that while South Koreans are generally supportive of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, they may resent U.S. influence and the possibility of being linked to U.S. policies that irritate neighboring China. Seoul is also wary of Japan’s proposed effort to expand its military, a move supported by the United States.

Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this story.

rowland.ashley@stripes.com
Twitter: @rowland_stripes

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