By CNN National Security Producer Jamie Crawford
Pomp and circumstance, a glitzy dinner at the White House and a new trade agreement with the United States greeted South Korean President Lee Myung Bak on his arrival to Washington on Wednesday. One nagging issue still remained - the international effort to denuclearize South Korea's hard-line neighbor to the north.
For U.S. President Barack Obama, the path forward for North Korea could not be clearer.
"If Pyongyang continues to ignore its international obligations, it will invite even more pressure and isolation," Obama said at a joint news conference Thursday alongside Lee. "If the North abandons its quest for nuclear weapons and moves towards denuclearization, it will enjoy greater security and opportunity for its people.
The quest for a nuke-free Korean Peninsula is a venture that has exasperated administrations both past and present. The six-party talks, a vehicle launched during the administration of President George W. Bush to negotiate an end to Pyongyang's nuclear program, comprise both Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. At various points, progress seemed to be made, only to have North Korea either pull out over disagreements on verifiable declarations of their nuclear program, or to engage in belligerent behavior that scuttled the talks.
The last full round of talks were held in 2008.
The United States has called repeatedly for North Korea to undertake a series of prerequisite steps, such as halting missile and nuclear tests, and further development of nuclear weapons, to show they are interested in coming back to talks.
After taking office in 2009, Obama was met with a set of provocations. North Korea test-fired missiles and conducted a new round of nuclear tests. A small opening toward the resumption of talks was reversed after North Korea was accused of sinking a South Korean naval vessel in the Yellow Sea, followed by their artillery shelling of a South Korean island in November 2010 in which two civilians were killed.
In July, Stephen Bosworth, the State Department's point man on North Korea, and North Korean diplomats met in New York to explore ways both sides might return to multilateral discussions over the North's nuclear program. It was the first direct set of talks between the United States and North Korea since 2008. Both sides labeled the talks as "constructive," and seemed to indicate future talks could be possible.
One variable in any future talks will be the leadership transition under way in Pyongyang. After suffering a stroke in 2008, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il seems to have engineered a succession plan that would eventually hand power to his son, Kim Jong-un.
"Nobody knows exactly how it affects the talks," says Victor Cha, a member of the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It just means there is ever more uncertainty on the North Korean side than we are normally accustomed to, and we are accustomed to a great deal of uncertainty."
Many North Korea watchers do not see new leadership as being inclined to reach a deal in the near future. If anything, they say, a young and inexperienced leader like Kim's son will be more inclined to show toughness when it comes to holding on to the North's current stock of weapons.
North Korea's own view of it's status in the world nuclear club may also figure into their decision whether or not to rejoin any talks.
"North Korea hasn't shown much interest in the topic of denuclearization," said Scott Snyder, who heads the Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Instead, Pyongyang seems more interested in "locking in their gains and finding forums through which to try and insist on implicit recognition of their status as a nuclear-capable country," he said.
While the North may exhibit a willingness to return to some sort of dialogue in the future, "they haven't committed in a tangible way to the agenda for dialogue that had previously existed in the context of the six-party talks," Snyder said.
China, North Korea's greatest benefactor and trading partner, has great leverage and could play a large role in getting Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Analysts who follow the situation closely say China seems more interested at this stage in having the United States pay all the diplomatic and political costs of negotiating with the Kim regime, because Beijing does not see a direct threat from the North's nuclear program.
Cha says the tsunami-triggered nuclear accident in Japan in March could change China's calculus.
"If there is any country that is directly threatened by North Korean nuclear mismanagement of their facilities, either through a man-made disaster or a natural disaster, it's China," he said. "It's probably the most unsafe program in the world."
Close coordination between the United States and South Korea also is necessary in getting North Korea back to the negotiating table. With the passage in Congress of a free-trade agreement between the United States and South Korea this week, the two countries are enjoying some of the closest ties they have had.
Going forward, people who have participated in discussions with North Korea say a combination of multilateral talks along with a bilateral track of discussions will be necessary to move North Korea forward.
But from the U.S. perspective, "having the six-party stamp on it, the multilateral buy-in from the other countries" will be important to ensure compliance with whatever agreement is reached, Cha said.