Reliable Security Information
Obama's North Korea Dilemma

Foremost among the foreign policy challenges facing the next U.S. administration will be a nuclear North Korea under a Communist regime with a record of proliferation to states unfriendly to Washington. President-elect Barack Obama's two predecessors in the White House have pursued a multilateral engagement policy with Pyongyang. Since August 2003, President Bush has negotiated with North Korea under the Six-Party Talks, which include South Korea, Japan, Russia, and China. The parties offer food and fuel aid in exchange for steps taken by North Korea toward abandonment of its nuclear weapons. But these stop-and-go negotiations have been less than smooth, leading experts to say that Obama will not only face a long, difficult process of working with one of the most intractable regimes in the world, but the challenge of managing deteriorating relations between North and South Korea.

Obama, writing in a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, said he supports "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy." But the problem underlying negotiations with North Korea, experts say, is that Pyongyang has no intention of giving up its weapons anytime soon. "I think we're sort of condemned to that process because we don't really have any alternative," says CFR Vice President Gary Samore, who worked on the Agreed Framework to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue during the Clinton administration. Experts say an alternative approach that would force the issue and potentially provoke a war is not a viable option at this point. The U.S. military is already engaged in two wars, and Pyongyang's neighbors, China and South Korea, are both wary of the potential geopolitical fallout of regime change in North Korea.

Steps taken by the Bush administration this year may complicate the next administration's task. After North Korea handed over a...

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