Obama Faces Tough Task of Containing North Korea's Nuclear Breakout

He inherits a troublesome foe that dramatically expanded plutonium production during the Bush years.

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Six years of diplomatic wrangling and political and economic pressure have failed to resolve a key U.S. national security issue—North Korea's nuclear breakout. And if the past is any guide to the future, the incoming Obama administration will have to grapple with this dangerous problem for years to come.

Barack Obama's North Korea inheritance includes a tortured diplomatic history of defiance by Pyongyang, aloofness and paralyzing policy infighting by the Bush administration, and, most recently, slow and painful bargaining with a regime branded by President Bush as a charter member of the "axis of evil."

Above all, the legacy features a dictatorship that is believed to have produced enough plutonium for an estimated six to eight nuclear bombs and that two years ago conducted an underground atomic test blast. Unable to stop hunger in its midst and wed to Stalinist-style political prisons and repression, North Korea has nonetheless pushed open the door to the world's small club of nuclear weapons states.

By contrast, when Bush entered office in 2001, the secretive, communist regime in Pyongyang was thought to be concealing one or two bombs' worth of plutonium in spite of a previous diplomatic deal during the Clinton administration. In 2002 the Bush administration accused the North of running a clandestine uranium enrichment program, and the North kicked out international inspectors, pulled out of the Clinton-era agreement, and began manufacturing plutonium.

Washington initially refused to meet directly with Pyongyang's officials, instead demanding that North Korea reveal and stop all of its nuclear activities. As the North moved along the nuclear road, however, the Bush administration switched to a more pragmatic tack and agreed to a six-nation negotiating process with the aim of denuclearizing the North. That effort yielded an overall agreement on principles, but its implementation has been wracked—and delayed—by stormy disagreements. More disputes will undoubtedly arise during the Obama presidency.

In October, at the height of the U.S. presidential campaign, the State Department brokered a deal with Pyongyang in which the North was removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. In return, the North agreed to a watered-down verification plan. Probes of possible nuclear sites other than its well-known reactor complex at Yongbyon would be subject to "mutual consent." Questions about the North's alleged uranium enrichment work and transfer of nuclear know-how to Syria also remain unanswered. The October deal angered conservatives, including former Bush administration policymakers, and it left unsettled the most sensitive questions about future inspections.

In getting the administration to soften its long-standing doctrine on tough verification procedures, the North had resorted to its classic mix of bluster and brinkmanship. It had again ordered nuclear inspectors to leave, test-launched missiles, and threatened to reverse hard-won steps already taken to disable its Yongbyon complex. In November, Pyongyang put up yet another roadblock, declaring it would not allow what had been agreed to on the sampling of soil and atomic waste—key aspects of verifying its nuclear activities.

The North appeared to understand that a lame-duck administration was willing to bend in order to salvage the denuclearization process. "I think the North Koreans believe they have successfully forced the Bush administration to back down," says Gary Samore, a former U.S. nonproliferation official and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Adds North Korea expert and Obama campaign adviser Frank Jannuzi, "It's going to be a painful, step-by-step process getting to the truth."

The uncertainty about dealing with the so-called Hermit Kingdom has been deepened by intelligence reports that "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il may have suffered a stroke and undergone brain surgery this summer but recovered sufficiently to remain in charge. He missed North Korea's 60th anniversary parade on September 9. Subsequently released photos—some of disputed vintage—purport to show him talking with Army troops and watching a soccer game. But the mystery remains.