North Korea Presents A Complex Challenge

A flag with the insignia of the North Korean Workers' Party. i i

North Korean political and military officials are dwarfed by a giant flag in this photo released by the state-run news agency. The flag bears the insignia of the North Korean Workers' Party. KCNA/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption KCNA/AFP/Getty Images
A flag with the insignia of the North Korean Workers' Party.

North Korean political and military officials are dwarfed by a giant flag in this photo released by the state-run news agency. The flag bears the insignia of the North Korean Workers' Party.

KCNA/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea's charges against two American reporters were vague, and the trial was secretive. But the verdict was clear: Laura Ling and Euna Lee have been sentenced to 12 years each in a labor camp.

The severe sentence added to tensions between the U.S. and the insular communist regime.

But it was only one strand in a much larger and more complex web of issues the Obama administration is facing with North Korea. Any one of those issues could be the tripwire to a dangerous confrontation.

Here's a look at some of the main challenges North Korea has raised for its neighbors in Asia, and for the United States:

U.S. Journalists Sentenced: After North Korea's official news agency announced the sentencing of Ling and Lee, a White House spokesman on Monday said the administration was "engaged through all possible channels for their release."

North Korea's highest court found the two reporters guilty of an unspecified "grave crime" and illegally crossing into North Korean territory. Ling and Lee worked for Current TV, a cable television network co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore.

They were said to be working on a story about human trafficking of North Korean refugees near the China-North Korea border when they were arrested on March 17.

Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson said on NBC's Today show that the sentence was "harsher than expected," but that it could present an opportunity for negotiating the journalists' release.

Richardson, now the governor of New Mexico, was involved in negotiating the release of American citizens from North Korea in the 1990s. He said the fact that North Korea did not explicitly charge Ling and Lee with spying was a positive sign that their release was negotiable.

He also noted that, so far at least, North Korea has not sought to link the journalists' case with other disputes it has with the U.S.

North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program: This is a major issue stoking tensions between the U.S. and North Korea — one that both the Clinton and Bush administrations tried and failed to resolve. North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test on May 25, defying United Nations resolutions and breaking an agreement made in 2007.

The international dispute over North Korea's nuclear program goes back to the early 1990s, when Pyongyang pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1994, the Clinton administration negotiated a deal under which North Korea agreed to stop its nuclear program in exchange for American help in building safer light-water nuclear reactors.

In 2002, President George W. Bush denounced North Korea as part of an "axis of evil" of rogue nations intent on obtaining weapons of mass destruction. Three years later, North Korea acknowledged that it had a nuclear weapon, and it tested its first bomb in 2006.

Japan has said repeatedly that North Korea's nuclear ambitions were unacceptable, raising the fear that Japan and South Korea might seek to build up arms deterrents of their own.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to be referring to that concern in an interview on ABC's This Week on Sunday, when she said: "If we do not take significant and effective action against the North Koreans now, we'll spark an arms race in Northeast Asia. I don't think anybody wants to see that."

North Korea's Missile Development And Arms Sales: In early April, North Korea launched an intermediate-range rocket, claiming that it was seeking to put a satellite in orbit. The U.S. and other nations denounced the move as a step toward developing a missile that could carry a military, and possibly nuclear, warhead.

There have been indications that the North Koreans may be preparing for another test of their long-range Taepodong-2 missile, possibly even during President Obama's planned visit to South Korean in mid-June.

The U.S. and other nations have long accused North Korea of exporting missile and possibly nuclear technology to nations such as Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria and Yemen.

Efforts To Interdict North Korea Weapons Contraband: After North Korea's first nuclear bomb test, in 2006, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution that could have allowed other nations to stop and board vessels entering or leaving North Korean waters to search them for contraband, including illegal missile or nuclear technology. The provision was vaguely worded, and the interdictions were never carried out.

The U.S. has since proposed a more explicit resolution that would call for interdictions at sea. China has opposed such a resolution, saying it could spark an open confrontation with the North. North Korean officials have said they would regard such inspections as an act of war.

Listing North Korea As A Terrorism Sponsor: Last year, then-President Bush removed North Korea from the State Department's list of nations that sponsor terrorism. North Korea had been on the list since 1988, when North Korean agents were implicated in a bombing that killed 115 people aboard Korean Air Flight 858.

The designation was removed after North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear program. But last week, a group of Republican senators wrote to President Obama, demanding that North Korea be put back on the list. Secretary of State Clinton said on Sunday that the administration is going to look into that, adding, "Obviously we would want to see recent evidence of their support for international terrorism."

North Korea's Succession Problems: A complication of dealings with North Korea is the question of who's in charge. North Korea's 68-year-old leader Kim Jong Il is believed to have suffered a stroke in 2008, leaving the succession unclear. In recent weeks, North Korea watchers in the U.S. and South Korea say there are indications that Kim Jong Il has designated his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to take over.

Little is known about Kim Jong Un, including his age, but he is thought to be in his mid-20s. It is unclear whether powerful groups in North Korea's military and its Communist Party would accept a relatively untried young man as Kim Jong Il's successor.

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