- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In the wake of last month’s collapse of U.S.-North Korean nuclear disarmament talks, the incoming Obama administration will have some difficult decisions to make about dealing with Pyongyang.

In his second term, President Bush adopted a conciliatory approach toward the Stalinist regime, often choosing to overlook North Korean cheating. In June, Pyongyang asserted that by providing a declaration of its nuclear activities to U.S. officials, it had earned its removal from the U.S. list of terror-supporting states - without Washington having to worry whether its assertions could be verified. The claim was false. For more than three years, American officials had repeatedly told the North Koreans that verification was a critical component of any agreement. But when push came to shove, North Korea sought to renege and Washington acquiesced.

The report agreed to by the Bush administration fell short in three major ways: It didn’t account for nuclear weapons already produced; it failed to address North Korean proliferation activities involving Iran and Syria; and it did not provide details of North Korea’s covert uranium enrichment activities. But these concessions to North Korea were not enough to salvage the Washington-Pyongyang nuclear arms talks, which fell apart last month after North Korea refused to agree to a system of verifying that it had ended all nuclear activities - as it had pledged to do.

While Mr. Obama has said relatively little about his approach to North Korea, his on-the-record statements suggest that the new administration’s policy will not differ very much from the soft approach taken by the Bush administration during the president’s second term. During a September debate with Sen. John McCain, Mr. Obama suggested that the Bush administration’s tougher first-term approach toward North Korea was to blame for its decisions to abandon the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003 and to test a nuclear weapon in 2006. He asserted that because the Bush administration had softened its approach toward North Korea, “we have at least made some progress.” The facts suggest otherwise.

There is one issue on which Mr. Obama would do well to clarify his policy: ballistic missile defense - an essential component of any policy aimed at deterring Pyongyang from staging a nuclear and/or ballistic missile attack. “Blueprint for Change,” the Obama campaign doctrine, declares that Mr. Obama will support missile defense that is “pragmatic and cost-effective” and “does not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public from nuclear attack.” These statements imply incorrectly that missile defense technology is unproven and that it is not a national security priority. As a recent Heritage Foundation study on missile defense points out, successful intercepts were achieved on 34 of 42 tests from 2001 to 2007. If the new president clings to old myths about missile defense, he can probably say goodbye to any chance, however remote, of persuading North Korea to change its behavior.

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