By Kim Young-jin
The impetus remains with North Korea to improve ties with Washington in President Barack Obama's second term, as analysts say his administration will watch how inter-Korean relations unfold rather than making a bold initiative.
Citing a lack of political will to engage, the analysts said Obama will continue his "strategic patience" approach that presses Pyongyang to first improve ties with Seoul and take denuclearization steps.
"I don't think there will be any major changes in policy," said Peter Beck, Korea representative of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. "There is fairly close to a consensus in dealing with North Korea both for the Democrats and Republicans."
The approach seeks to maintain sanctions, tighten the alliance with Seoul and negotiate only with assurances that the North is not perpetuating a cycle of provocations and promises that have burned past administrations.
After the North scuttled a food aid deal by firing a long-range rocket in April, experts say advocates for engagement without concrete steps are relatively few.
Aside from the North's behavior, the main variable will be the next Seoul administration's ability to decrease tensions with the Kim Jong-un regime. All three presidential candidates in the Dec. 19 elections say they are willing to engage with the North after five years of icy ties under President Lee Myung-bak.
"If you have improving conditions between the two Koreas and a government in Seoul that wants to engage, that's a very different context," John Delury, an international relations expert at Yonsei University said. "The appetite is low now, but it seems to go in cycles."
Obama's appointment to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs both expected to step down, will likely set the parameters for how flexible the administration will be over the North.
Among the rumored candidates for top diplomat, John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has in the past called for engagement with Pyongyang.
Experts in both countries say the alliance has matured under the Obama and President Lee, decreasing the chances for wide policy gaps as seen under Bush and his liberal South Korean counterparts.
But Seoul may need to give time to the Obama administration to make its appointments before any major movement on Korea issues.
"One critical mistake that South Korean politicians and opinion leaders might make is to regard lack of action in the first six months under the new administration as a sign of disinterest," Bong Young-shik, senior researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Bong cited a "rushed" summit between late former President Kim Dae-jung and George W. Bush in 2001 as well as the first summit between Obama and Lee, as reason to take a measured approach to the transition.
The Obama administration took office saying it was willing to talk to isolated leaders such as the late Kim Jong-il. But the North began preparations to test fire a long-range rocket soon after he took office and launched it before Obama's April 2009 speech in Prague on creating a nuclear-free world.
Washington worked to bolster political and economic ties with the South, including completion of a free trade deal. Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University, says a main alliance task will now be to see a smooth transfer of wartime operation control to Seoul by 2015.