Obama's North Korean Nuke Challenge

Finally, proof of life from Kim Jong Il. Since the North Korean dictator reportedly suffered a stroke last August, his officials have occupied themselves by releasing dubious photos of their Dear Leader in action. The latest images, though, show no obvious signs of digital doctoring and feature harder-to-fake images of Kim meeting with senior Chinese officials from Beijing last Friday. Kim appeared to have lost considerable weight and his bouffant hairstyle was notably thinner, but at the very least the encounter—his first known meeting in five months—showed that the reclusive Korean is fit enough to meet with foreign dignitaries.

Apparently, Pyongyang is hoping that by reminding the Obama administration that Kim is still calling the shots, its nuclear presence won't fall in by the wayside of other pressing issues like the economy, the Mideast, Iraq and Afghanistan.Kim's meeting with the Chinese was the latest in Pyongyang's attention-seeking efforts in the last few weeks. Just days before Obama's inauguration, North Korean officials told Selig Harrison, a North Korea expert at the Center for International Policy in Washington who recently visited Pyongyang, that the North "weaponized" its plutonium. Then, North Korea's foreign ministry issued a statement suggesting that Pyongyang won't do away with its nukes unless Washington normalizes diplomatic relations with the Stalinist state first. To top it all off, the North stepped up its bellicose rhetoric to enemy South Korea, threatening that it will take an "all-out confrontational posture to shatter" its southern neighbor. That sent Seoul scrambling to put its military on high alert, which deployed reinforcement troops to what is already the world's most heavily fortified border.

A cynic might see all of this as North Korea's way of hazing the incoming Obama administration. That's certainly part of it. Before unleashing its tough rhetoric, Pyongyang showed signs of reaching out by requesting Washington to let North Korean nuclear negotiator, Kim Kye-gwan, attend Obama's inauguration (the request was turned down). "North Korea doesn't like to be ignored, so it's going to make itself noticeable so that the Obama administration has to address its concerns," says Bruce Klingner, a former Korea analyst at the CIA and now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "But despite the expectations that Obama will implement a new approach and accelerate denuclearization, he's going to run into the same problems that his predecessors ran into."

Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official who negotiated with Pyongyang, says the North Korean threat "is greater than eight years ago." The Six-Party Talks—the multilateral framework to negotiate North Korea's denuclearization involving China, Russia, Japan, the United States and both Koreas—is increasingly seen as a diplomatic basket case. And nobody, except for the North Koreans, knows exactly how much plutonium they have. Pyongyang has already agreed to stop further plutonium production, but it is already estimated to have enough to make about six to eight nuclear weapons. But it still hasn't agreed on the details to allow inspectors to verify the exact amount and whereabouts of the plutonium. That's partly because the agreements at the Six-Party Talks have been watered down by Pyongyang to an ambiguous deal that allows the North to raise additional demands in exchange for slowing its plutonium program to a snail's pace.

What does Pyongyang really want? For all its paranoia, North Korea insists it's still under the threat of "American and Japanese imperialists," and says that it has every right to possess a "nuclear deterrent" to defend itself. Appeasing them with money and oil won't be enough. On Pyongyang's wish list: the removal of all economic sanctions, withdrawal of American troops from South Korea, assurance that there are no U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea (something denied by current and former U.S. State Department officials), two light-water reactors and normalized relations with the United States.Until all of that happens, Pyongyang is making no secret that it's keeping its nukes. "By saying that the plutonium was weaponized, North Korea, in their view, could say that the inspection of plutonium is off the table because it's all been put into a weapon and there's nothing left to inspect," Klingner says. Then there's the question of its suspected uranium-enrichment program, which Pyongyang denies. In the final days of the Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that American intelligence is now confident that there is an "undisclosed" amount of "either imported or manufactured weapons-grade" uranium in the North.

For the moment, the Obama White House has bigger priorities than North Korea. Still, the new U.S. president would do well to keep in mind that Pyongyang is continuing to tweak its nuclear-weapons program. It already has an arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of hitting all of Japan and potentially parts of the United States.

The question, then, is whether North Korea possesses the ability to arm those missiles with its nuclear warheads. While most experts believe Pyongyang still hasn't gotten that far, the chances are they're working on it. "The North Koreans will do it either way—whether the U.S. negotiates with them or not," says Kenneth Quinones, a former State Department negotiator with years of experience dealing with North Korea. "Even if the U.S. negotiates, they'll put a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile in order to kick up the price [for denuclearization]."

Kim's health problems are an additional complication. His refusal to name a successor, could pave the way for North Korea's generals to increase their clout in a nation that puts the Korean People's Army (KPA) above everything. "When [Kim] dies, the military is going to be even more powerful," says Quinones. Given that the KPA controls the nuclear-weapons program, that scenario could pose a particular challenge to the Obama administration.

For now, the new leaders in Washington are still reviewing their options. In spite of speculation that Obama's North Korea policy could be more of the same, there are hints of a subtly different approach. The Bush administration largely saw Pyongyang's nukes as a direct threat to the security of the U.S. and its allies, more than as a challenge to the global nonproliferation framework.

The Obama administration might reshuffle those priorities: first and foremost, keep the nukes from getting into the wrong hands, and then try to get rid of its nuclear program down the road. "Many in the State Department think that North Korea's nuclear program—while potentially destabilizing—is not a front-burner issue that is aggressive in nature," says a former U.S. diplomat involved in the Obama administration's Asia-policy transition team who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely. "The concern [in the State Department] isn't North Korea as a threat—the concern here is the problem of how do you prevent or limit nuclear proliferation." Part of the thinking, the former diplomat says, is that while Pyongyang likely won't agree to get rid of its nukes anytime soon, at the same time they also aren't crazy enough to commit national suicide by provoking a nuclear war.

That's not to say that Washington is downplaying the North Korean threat. During her confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton said she will seek "to end" North Korea's nuclear-weapons program and stop its nukes from proliferating. But she also suggested that the Obama administration may have to face the reality that the nukes won't go away in the foreseeable future. "I think it takes tough reality-based diplomacy to determine what is doable," she said. It's an assessment that doves might call sober and realistic. Hawks, for their part, could see it as a defeatist attitude that would undermine the security of American allies in Asia. Either way, Kim Jong Il and his henchmen will keep reminding the Obama administration that it has tough issues to deal with on the Korean Peninsula.