Seoul (AFP) Oct 31, 2008
Among the many foreign policy headaches facing the next US president, North Korea -- isolated, poor and hungry, but crucially nuclear armed -- poses an outsized security challenge.
Adding to the uncertainty is the reported poor health of leader Kim Jong-Il who is said to have suffered a stroke, and the potential regional instability if his death triggers a regime collapse.
The communist state's nuclear ambitions have alarmed US leaders during the past two decades and brought Washington close to war in 1994.
After a mid-term policy switch, President George W. Bush reached a deal to cap the North's production of bomb-making material.
As president, Barack Obama or John McCain will inherit a tougher challenge -- trying to persuade the hardline nation the size of Mississippi to surrender its existing plutonium stockpile and atomic weapons in exchange for peace and security guarantees.
McCain has publicly taken a tougher line than Obama on six-country nuclear disarmament negotiations. But analysts say neither is likely to change the US policy dramatically at this point.
"There will be continuity, although the US will need time to get new personnel in place," said Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
"If North Korea believes it will get a better deal from a Democratic administration, that is not the case at all. There is a strong consensus" on policy.
Koh Yu-Hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University, said McCain would feel constrained to respect the deal forged by his Republican predecessor.
"Whoever wins, there might be progress in implenting the second phase of nuclear disablement," he told AFP.
"The third stage is a quite difficult process as it includes negotiations on the establishment of a peace accord between North Korea and the US."
The current stage of the six-nation disarmament pact requires the North to render its plutonium-producing plants unusable in exchange for energy aid and removal from a US terrorism blacklist.
The third and last phase envisages dismantling the plants and the handover of all atomic weapons and material in exchange for diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan and a permanent peace pact on the peninsula.
"North Korea will turn over nuclear weapons and material only when it signs a peace or non-aggression accord with the US," said Koh.
"This is the most difficult issue that will face the next US administration. It will be not easy for Washington to take tangible steps on ending its traditional animosity against Pyongyang completely."
Kim Il-Young, a Sungkyunkwan University politics professor, was sceptical that final disarmament would be achieve whoever wins the US presidency.
"Despite its earlier nuclear deal with US, the North still wants to drag its feet. It is a matter of survival," he said.
"If it reaches a final deal or agrees to give up nuclear weapons, that will inevitably make its regime unstable."
Kim said Obama would likely be more active in pushing for a solution.
"Still, it is doubtful that he could let North Korea keep its nuclear weapons, and the communist country is reluctant to go to the final stage."
Pinkston said the next round of negotiations would be much harder, and predicted it could last for years.
The wild card in the diplomatic poker game is Kim Jong-Il's health after he was reported to have suffered a stroke around mid-August.
That "will also affect negotiations as it will cause internal uncertainty in North Korea," said Kim Il-Young.
"It is not sure whether Kim is in control or not. But it is true that the situation is abnormal, amplifying ambiguity."
Dongguk University's Kim said the North's leader appeared to be exercising control through his aides, while Pinkston said Kim's health was unlikely to complicate negotiations for the next few months.
Longer term however, the succession question could pose a major security challenge for the region and Washington.
"It's stable at the moment but has the potential to be very, very problematic," Pinkston said. "If there were a regime collapse or a coup or other instability, the situation could deteriorate very quickly."
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New US president to maintain nuclear talks with NKorea
Washington (AFP) Oct 30, 2008
US President George W. Bush's successor is expected to continue using a six-nation forum to disband North Korea's nuclear weapons network, but will emphasise tracking down its proliferation record.
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