South Korea leader seeks unity, and prestige, in US

WASHINGTON (AFP) - South Korea's new leader visits Washington next week on a mission to present a united front to a bellicose North Korea and also to safeguard her country's increasingly outsized role in the world.

President Park Geun Hye took office in February as the first woman to lead a Northeast Asian nation. But she has had little time to highlight her personal story, with her tenure quickly consumed by soaring tension with North Korea.

After a stop in New York, Park will meet President Barack Obama on Tuesday and address a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday. The two countries cleared the way for a smooth visit by putting off a decision on a nuclear accord, one of few major items of disagreement between the allies.

US experts predict that Mr Obama will offer Ms Park the limelight and follow her lead on North Korea, mindful that Pyongyang would seize on any sign of discord and try to portray the conservative leader as a puppet of Washington.

"I would say 90 percent of the US North Korea policy now is simply staying tied tightly with the South Koreans, whichever direction they want to go in," said Mr Victor Cha, who was former president George W. Bush's top aide on Korea.

Ms Park has taken a firm stand against any concessions to North Korea but has also been careful not to close the door to future talks - which US officials say is ultimately the sole, albeit not ideal, way to deal with Pyongyang.

North Korea, led by the young Kim Jong Un, in recent months carried out an atomic test and - in rhetoric shrill even by Pyongyang's standards - threatened nuclear war against the United States.

The Obama administration sent nuclear-capable stealth B-2 bombers as part of recent war games with South Korea, amid growing but still isolated calls by conservatives for Seoul to develop its own nuclear weapons.

Paik Hak-Soon of South Korea's Sejong Institute said the United States faced "enormous pressure" to curb North Korea and temper any nuclear temptations by allies South Korea and Japan.

"If the two countries, by any chance, take steps to develop their own nuclear programs, the US will see its military and diplomatic clout in the region wane considerably," he said.

While North Korea will top the agenda, Ms Park will likely also use her first White House summit to try to strike a connection with Obama, who counted her predecessor, Lee Myung-Bak, among his closest foreign allies.

Mr Obama "really did like Lee Myung Bak, and so I think there will be an effort to try to build or replicate, perhaps in a different fashion, the same sort of personal relationship," said Mr Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr Lee turned the page on US-South Korea tensions under a previous left-leaning leader and sealed a free trade agreement. US officials credited Mr Lee with thinking big and moving beyond formalities in his interactions with Mr Obama.

The Obama-Lee friendship came as South Korea achieved a global influence incommensurate with its size, chairing two key summits of world leaders. Park will meet Monday with United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, who is South Korean.

Under the slogan "Global Korea," the country has also actively promoted its culture overseas - seen most visibly in the success of "Gangnam Style" superstar Psy.

One key - if generally unspoken - factor in South Korea's drive is its tense relationship with Japan, whose harsh colonial rule is remembered bitterly by many Koreans.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is known for his conservative views on history, was warmly received on his own visit to Washington in February.

"I think the Koreans are going to be very anxious to see if their president is accorded the same honors, the same prestige, the same marks of distinction that Abe was," said Robert Hathaway of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

"Americans frequently are not very good at these things, but I think the administration understands that this is going to be very important to President Park and her entourage."

Ms Park already has one leg up as Mr Abe did not address Congress. But Japan cooperates with the United States on nuclear reprocessing, the key sticking point in US talks with South Korea on a new nuclear accord.

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