Somewhere on the long list of problems that President Barack Obama will inherit next January will be the ongoing negotiations to roll back North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The announcement on October 11, removing North Korea from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism in exchange for a verification mechanism, has the virtue of keeping the diplomatic
avenue open. But if we look carefully at what it took even to get to this interim point,
there should be no illusions about the difficulties of finishing the job.
The latest deal merely closes the second phase of an agreement that was originally signed in February 2007. This phase was supposed to be completed in 60 days. Instead it has taken 19 months. This 19-month saga of negotiation over what may be the easiest step in the process—freezing the status quo—should caution against any expectation that the next administration can easily step in and pick up the negotiating reins.
There are three options it can reasonably consider come January. One would be to try to regain what has been given away in these talks—the inclusion of undeclared sites and proliferation activities—by returning to tactics of international sanctions and Chinese pressure. Japan, which is unhappy with the deal, may be ready for this but there is no evidence that Beijing or even the conservative Lee Myung-Bak government in South Korea is interested in returning to confrontation. At the other end of the spectrum would be an effort to leapfrog the drawn-out phases by offering Pyongyang most of what they claim to want—normalization of relations, economic aid, security assurances, a formal peace treaty to end the Korean war—in a "grand bargain."
Finally, there is the least attractive but most likely course: to lock in the gains of plutonium containment and to continue the diplomatic slog into the dismantling phase, albeit with a more rigorous approach. The U.S. could also try to encourage regime transformation in the North through both engagement and pressure. Given the uncertainties over the health of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, this may be the only viable path to ending the North Korean nuclear threat.