Naval rivalry with China, North Korean missile threats await next presidentSouth China Sea has become flashpoint between American status quo and Chinese naval ambitions SEOUL, South Korea — For decades, North Korea has been like “The Mouse That Roared” — an impoverished country that couldn’t feed its own people issuing comically bellicose warnings to seize the world’s attention.

But the next U.S. president will face a dangerously different North Korea, which is becoming increasingly capable of delivering on some of those threats.

The equation has changed dramatically since Kim Jong Un came to power after his father’s death in 2011.

The isolated communist country has conducted three nuclear tests on his watch, and it has nearly two dozen nuclear weapons by some estimates. It also is believed to be making progress on miniaturizing them to fit on a missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland — though experts think that’s still years away.

That opens a new phase in the 63-year-old Cold War-era conflict just in time for the U.S. presidential election.

“If allowed to continue, current trends will predictably, progressively and gravely threaten U.S. national security interests and those of its allies,” the Council on Foreign Relations said.

The New York-based think tank said the next administration must make North Korea a priority even at the cost of other U.S. objectives.

“The impending nuclear threshold where the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] can strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons, and evolving regional dynamics, may mean that the next U.S. president might have the last chance to end the North Korean threat and secure a stable, prosperous maritime Asia,” the council added.

At stake is an uneasy stalemate that has existed since the 1950-53 Korean War between the U.S.-backed South and the North with its Chinese allies ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula divided by the world’s most militarized border.

With a mantra of “be ready to fight tonight,” the United States has some 28,500 servicemembers stationed in the South, including a Fort Hood, Texas-based rotational brigade of about 4,000 soldiers.

The military also regularly deploys Marines and other units to the peninsula for training and joint war games.

President Barack Obama began his first term inclined to pursue direct talks with North Korea. But his “outstretched hand” was met with a multistage rocket launch and a nuclear test in the spring of 2009.

Obama’s administration then adopted a policy dubbed “strategic patience,” which essentially meant no talks until North Korea was ready to make serious concessions. The policy relies on sanctions and diplomatic pressure to try to squeeze the North Korean regime, which fears a threat to its hold on power.

In the past, the North has used negotiations to wrangle food, fuel and other concessions from the West to help it stay in power. But Kim Jong Un, the third leader in the family dynasty that has ruled since the country was formed in 1948, appears to be upping the ante this year.

North Korea conducted its fifth underground nuclear test Sept. 9, just eight months after the previous blast. It also has carried out several ballistic missile tests in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions banning it from using the technology and imposing tough economic sanctions.

“Since January, it’s basically been a preview of coming attractions for whoever the next president is,” said Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

CFR’s independent task force report calls for proposing new talks with Pyongyang aimed at freezing its nuclear and missile programs while escalating financial pressure.

It also urged the Obama administration to do more to bring China on board and raised the possibility of using discussions on U.S. force structure and the scope of joint exercises on the peninsula as leverage.

Beijing, which views North Korea as a buffer between it and U.S. forces on the peninsula, opposes the North’s nuclear ambitions and agreed to the latest round of tightened U.N. sanctions in March.

But its commitment to implementing the measures has been tested by disputes with Washington over the South China Sea and plans to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system in South Korea.

The U.S. presidential candidates offer starkly different approaches to North Korea, albeit with few policy details.

Republican nominee Donald Trump has said he would sit down for talks with Kim Jong Un and rely on China to contain the problem.

Trump also threatened to withdraw military forces if South Korea doesn’t pay more for their upkeep, and said he would be open to letting Seoul acquire a nuclear arsenal rather than depending on the U.S. umbrella for protection.

That would be a stunning reversal of longstanding U.S. policy aimed at keeping South Korea safe so it doesn’t have to develop nuclear weapons as part of efforts to prevent another outbreak of fighting on the peninsula.

U.S. and South Korean officials reacted with alarm, saying the longstanding partnership is vital to protect the South Koreans but also for American interests and security in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

They also pointed out Seoul pays about half the personnel costs, about $900 million a year. That increases each year due to inflation, with a cap of 4 percent, according to a Special Measures Agreement that governs the burden-sharing terms.

During Gen. Vincent Brooks’ confirmation hearing, the commander of U.S. Forces in Korea said it would cost more to keep the soldiers stationed in the United States than in Korea.

South Korea also is paying most of the costs for the $10.7 billion relocation of the bulk of U.S. forces in Korea to an expanded base south of Seoul.

Hillary Clinton laid out Obama’s policies as his first secretary of state and has offered staunch support for his call to tighten U.N. sanctions against the country.

But experts said even the Democratic nominee will face hard choices as North Korea shows no sign of backing down and continues to make surprising progress in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Meanwhile, South Korea also will hold its own presidential election in December 2017, which could usher in a leftist government that favors a softer approach toward North Korea and is less accommodating to the United States.

“North Korea is waiting for the next regimes,” said Kim Joon-hyung, a professor of international studies at South Korea’s Handang Global University. “In the meantime, they’ll try to upgrade their nuclear capability. Try to raise their price.” Twitter: @kimgamel

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