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Obama Administration Policy on North Korea Remains Uncertain

The Obama administration has not yet given a clear indication of its plans for addressing the nuclear standoff and related matters with North Korea, the Associated Press reported today (see GSN, Feb. 5).

Years of negotiations have resulted in progress in the denuclearization of North Korea, which since 2007 has taken measures to disable key facilities at its plutonium-producing Yongbyon nuclear complex. However, the nuclear dismantlement process stalled again late last year and Pyongyang more recently has increased its rhetoric against South Korea and the United States and shown signs of preparing for another long-range missile test (see related GSN story, today).

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has not yet named a special envoy for North Korea similar to positions already filled for South Asia and the Middle East. Clinton has expressed support for the six-party talks on the nuclear crisis and is scheduled this month to visit China, Japan and South Korea, which have joined Russia and the United States in the years-old diplomatic process.

The Bush administration did not have a special envoy for North Korea, putting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and the Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill in charge of the talks. Asia specialist Kurt Campbell is expected to take that job, but to leave the focus on North Korea to another diplomat.

The East Asia position at the State Department has "become the North Korea desk officer," said former Bush administration Asia expert Michael Green. "it's too much to ask one person to do both jobs."

The administration might be taking its time in looking for the Korea envoy to ensure that person can cooperate with Campbell, according to AP. That would be particularly crucial for avoiding tension if the envoy reports directly to Clinton and President Barack Obama (Foster Klug, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, Feb. 6).

The North Korea situation is likely to remain a concern for some time, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this week.

The latest North Korean rhetoric -- in which the regime has declared a 1991 nonaggression pact with South Korea to be null and void and pledged to hold onto its nuclear weapons until the United States ends its "hostile" policies" -- is reason for "big concern" and is "not going away real quick," Mullen said during a speech in Pennsylvania.

"Obviously, it wasn't that long ago that they tested nuclear weapons there," he added, referring to the October 2006 blast that has been seen as something of a dud, the Yonhap News Agency reported (Yonhap News Agency, Feb. 6).

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