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.


The dynastic instinct runs strong in North Korea, and Kim is the focal point of perhaps the world's most obsessive personality cult. He is known to have three sons, but Kim's plans for succession are unknown. Some specialists believe that pro-nuclear hard-liners in the Army could gain the upper hand, keeping on one of the Kims as a figurehead. Nor does neighboring China appear willing to risk a collapse of the North Korean regime by squeezing it so much that it concedes on clear-cut nuclear disarmament.

Even now, it is not clear whether the North is ultimately willing to abandon its nuclear efforts entirely and see its nuclear bombs and other materials sent off. Rather, acknowledge U.S. officials and North Korea watchers elsewhere, it might hope to keep delaying the process and lay claim to nuclear-weapons status by exhausting others in the six-nation diplomatic process. Obama has said he will apply a tough style of direct diplomacy with the North. But after his inauguration, he will come face to face with all those uncertainties in trying to thwart North Korea's unforgiving diplomacy-by-attrition.

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