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North Korea's Challenges Await Obama

One of the most vexing foreign policy problems for the incoming Obama administration is the case of North Korea and its nuclear weapons program.

Since the late 1980s, successive American presidents have confronted the challenge of North Korea. At the same time, slowly but steadily, North Korea has been able to acquire the technology to build nuclear weapons. Two years ago, it exploded one underground.

North Korea has pledged to give up nuclear weapons, but the new administration will have to test that pledge for itself.

Military Action An Unlikely Option

At least one thing about North Korea's nuclear weapons was settled during the Bush administration, says Jon Wolfsthal, a specialist in nuclear proliferation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The only way we're going to get rid of the North Korean nuclear weapons program is at the negotiating table," Wolfsthal says. "The option of ending their program through military means or through sanctions alone, I think, was lost many, many years ago if it ever existed."

That's because North Korea proved it had acquired the bomb when it set off an underground nuclear test in 2006. After that, the military option became simply too dangerous.

North Korea insisted it had been seeking a nuclear deterrent against an attack from the U.S., and it apparently worked. It was then that the Bush administration began to use diplomacy aggressively, through the so-called six-party process involving China, Japan, Russia and South Korea as well as the U.S. and North Korea.

Lengthy Negotiations

But those talks have been very difficult, and they will continue to be difficult for President-elect Obama, says Mitchell Reiss, who headed the State Department's Policy Planning Office during the Bush administration.

"They're going to need an extraordinary amount of patience," Reiss says. "These negotiations are going to take years — not weeks, not months — years. And every negotiation will lead to an additional negotiation."

That's been the pattern over the past two years, but at the same time, there has been some progress. North Korea has disabled much of its key plutonium-producing facilities at Yongbyon.

At the moment the talks are bogged down over how the U.S. can verify the claims North Korea has made about the extent of its nuclear activities, especially the amount of plutonium it has stockpiled and how many bombs it might have. And Pyongyang has resisted divulging its uranium enrichment activities and whether it has shared nuclear technology with others, especially with Syria.

Continuing this process is the least attractive alternative, says Dan Sneider, associate director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. Nevertheless, it's the most likely policy the incoming administration will pursue.

"It's the least attractive because it's going to take the longest," Sneider says. "We've already had a process that was supposed to take 60 days. Instead it's taken 19 months and still counting. We still are constantly renegotiating the same deal, over and over again, each time the North Koreans extracting for every little concession they make, they demand reciprocity, and the process is agonizing."

There is another possibility, says Sneider — a kind of grand bargain where the U.S. normalizes political relations with North Korea, welcomes the Hermit Kingdom into the community of nations, and in exchange, North Korea rids itself of nuclear weapons.

"I'm torn myself because I see the attractiveness of the grand bargain," Sneider says. "But I'm not convinced that the North Koreans are really serious about denuclearization. And I worry that's a risky move, that you set yourself up for failure for accepting a nuclear North Korea at the end, when I think that'd be extremely dangerous for the security and stability of the whole region."

New Negotiations With Obama Administration

Still, short of a grand bargain, Reiss believes the new administration can be much clearer with the North Koreans about the benefits and ultimate destination of relinquishing nuclear weapons than was the Bush administration.

"What type of relationship does the United States want to have with North Korea, and to make that as clear as possible, including all the benefits that would accrue to North Korea if they went down this path," Reiss says. "That's something that the Bush administration never really made clear because there was so much ambivalence within the administration about the whole idea of talking to the North."

And that's one advantage the Obama administration may have over its predecessor — there is likely to be much less discord within the administration about engaging North Korea. Wolfsthal believes that will increase the likelihood of a successful diplomatic process.

"When it became clear the Bush administration wanted to negotiate, there were still limits — or handcuffs — put on our negotiators," Wolfsthal says. "They couldn't always meet with the North Koreans directly when they wanted to. They couldn't fly to Pyongyang when they wanted to. They had strict negotiating instructions when they did get to go. There's been very little flexibility afforded to our negotiations, and the hope is that with a new administration you will have a fresh look at all these tactics that might prove successful."

Another big question is the leadership in North Korea. Kim Jong-Il appears to have had a stroke earlier this year, but the North Korean propaganda machine has released a steady stream of pictures of an apparently healthy Kim, which have only added to the mystery. Should Kim pass from the scene, no one is sure who will replace him and how that will affect North Korea's attitude toward nuclear weapons.

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