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Reviving Talks With N. Korea Key Challenge for Obama Administration

How to revive talks to eliminate North Korea's nuclear program will be a key challenge for the Obama administration.

Since August 2003, the Bush administration has been trying to persuade North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons capabilities. That effort has been conducted through the negotiating forum known as the six-party talks, bringing together the United States, China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.

Experts say the on-again, off-again talks have produced some positive results, including the February 2007 agreement in which North Korea agreed in principle to dismantle its nuclear program, including weapons. But since that time, analysts say little progress has been made. And just last month, the latest round of talks collapsed with North Korea refusing to allow stricter verification procedures.

White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley recently told a Washington audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies resuming talks with North Korea will be an early challenge for Barack Obama after his inauguration as U.S. president January 20.

"North Korea will test the new administration by once again trying to split the six parties and renegotiate the deal - we've seen it before," he said. "And when its efforts fail to do so, North Korea will need to accept a verification agreement, so we can verify the disablement and then dismantlement of that country's nuclear capabilities. Without this verification agreement, there can be no progress."

Former Secretary of Defense [1973-75] James Schlesinger says the road to an agreement with North Korea goes through China.

"Only Beijing has sufficient leverage and in the past has shown considerable irritation with North Korean behavior that they might bring that leverage to bear," he said. "Otherwise, it's not clear what Pyongyang wants. It may be that Pyongyang just decided that the time was ripe for just ending the negotiations with Bush and that they would wait for Obama and seek a better deal from Obama. I think that that's a possibility and I think that we will know the answers to that in the next few months."

For his part, former National Security Adviser [1974-77; 1989-93] retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft urges the Obama administration to use patience.

"Patience and continuing on the course we're on," he said. "The North is a very difficult negotiating partner, but I think our negotiator there Chris Hill has done a magnificent job. And I think if we just keep on, keep after it, don't keep raising the ante, but just keep going - we've already come a long way. I'm optimistic there, but it will take patience."

But former Secretary of State [1992] Lawrence Eagleburger is advocating far more drastic measures against North Korea if diplomatic efforts fail.

"They need to be so thoroughly isolated by everybody that they have no room for maneuver at all and maybe, maybe over time, they might be persuaded to give up their nuclear weapons and proceed not to make any more," he said. "I think that is highly unlikely and I would not be horrified if at some point, after this has gone on for awhile, we went in there and destroyed every nuclear facility they have that we know about at least - and there may be some we don't. But I personally would not be upset if we went in by air - I'm not talking at this point about a ground invasion. But go in and see if we cannot destroy all of their facilities."

James Schlesinger and General Brent Scowcroft are against military action, saying it will alienate China, which is an influential player in the six-party talks. For his part, Barack Obama has called for "sustained, direct, and aggressive diplomacy" while describing North Korea as one of the biggest proliferation challenges facing the international community.