Page last updated at 16:42 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

Endgame for Bush and North Korea?

By Jonathan Marcus
BBC Diplomatic Correspondent

Christopher Hill speaks to reporters in Beijing
Christopher Hill has been the US envoy for years of negotiations

The effort to persuade North Korea to roll back its nuclear programme was, until recently, one of the modest successes for the Bush administration's foreign policy.

The man leading the effort, chief US negotiator Christopher Hill, is a hugely respected diplomat, well-versed in the intricacies of the subject.

For an administration criticised for its unilateralism, this was very much a multilateral effort, the framework for the discussions being the six-party talks involving the two Koreas, the US, Russia, China and Japan.

Having China on board and trying to view the North Korean nuclear problem through a regional prism had many advantages, even though tensions between North Korea and Japan have complicated matters over recent months.

Soft touch?

Indeed the Bush administration has significantly shifted both the tone and the substance of its policy towards North Korea.

Highly symbolic was the president's decision in October to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The Bush administration's effort to reach out to Pyongyang was seen as a betrayal of fundamental principle by some conservative hardliners, not least the former UN ambassador John Bolton.

Kim Jong-il shown in images released last Sunday
Kim Jong-il is notoriously elusive, and has recently been unwell

They believed that the administration had gone soft - and they may take some solace from the way things have actually turned out.

The real difficulty, though, has been the impenetrability of the North Korean regime; the illness of its leader who appears to have recovered from a recent stroke; and the fact that it was clear that the Bush administration was simply running out of time.

Challenges ahead

Now US President-elect Barack Obama can add this dossier too to his ever-increasing in-tray.

In the nature of these "off-again, on-again" talks with North Korea, it may well be possible to resume discussions within a matter of months.

However it must be remembered that, so far, the talks have only been about freezing Pyongyang's existing civil nuclear programme. Its presumed stockpile of nuclear weapons remains to be tackled.

And North Korea is likely to remain as touchy as ever about verification - the issue that hobbled the current round of contacts.

N Korea's nuclear plant at Yongbyon
Verification of North Korea's nuclear material has proved a sticking point

Gary Samore, a nuclear disarmament expert with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, believes that Mr Obama will have little new to offer.

"I think the main lesson is that the US is condemned to continue with the tortuous six-party process without any real guarantee of success," he says.

No country in the region, he adds, is prepared to accept regime change as a policy towards Pyongyang, hence the Bush administration's shift towards incrementalism offering inducements of food aid and fuel oil for small shifts in North Korea's behaviour.

So the course for the new US president may in effect be already set. There may be no alternative but pursuing a policy that experts believe is very unlikely to produce disarmament on the part of the North Koreans any time soon.

But Gary Samore has one key piece of advice for the new Obama team.

The first priority for the new administration, he insists, must be to mend relations with its allies.

"The abrupt changes in US policy," he says, "have badly damaged the confidence of America's key partners, South Korea and Japan.

"They have even raised questions as to whether the US is really serious about securing North Korean nuclear disarmament."

Indeed some in South Korea and Japan even fear that an Obama administration might be even more generous towards Pyongyang in its quest for an agreement.

So the Obama administration, in his view, must lower expectations and restore the confidence of allies, while making sure North Korea's real intentions are tested.

"Pyongyang must be made to convince the other members of the six-party process that it is really serious about disarmament. And at the moment nobody believes that it is."

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