WASHINGTON — When President Obama leaves office in January, the question of how to deal with North Korea won't leave with him.
The nuclear weapons program that has kept the past three administrations' hands full will almost certainly be inherited by President-elect Donald Trump. Obama has already warned Trump that North Korea should be his top national security priority, the Wall Street Journal reported, and could be among one of Trump's first major foreign policy tests.
The national security threat posed by North Korea is a rare area of agreement between Democrats and Republicans.
"I think history will judge all of us poorly if we allow a madman the ability to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach America," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I think Trump needs to tell the Chinese and the North Koreans and everybody else in the world, you keep going down this road of developing missile technology that can reach our homeland- that's a provocative act, and you will pay a heavy price."
Within months of Obama taking office, North Korea conducted both a nuclear test and a missile test. Phil Eskeland, executive director of the Korea Economic Institute, told BuzzFeed News it is not uncommon for US adversaries like North Korea to "test" new presidents.
Which means Trump may need to face some harsh foreign relations realities that exist soon after he steps into office.
"They're obviously a very unstable country with an unstable leader," said Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and a potential candidate for Trump's secretary of state. "So I would agree that it's definitely an area that should have tremendous focus."
Two of the concerns with North Korea are nuclear testing and the miniaturization of technology that would allow it to be placed on top of a missile that could reach as far as the United States, Eskeland said.
(None of that even scratches the surface on the criticism for human rights concerns North Korea has caused.)
North Korea has conducted multiple nuclear tests that have caused concern among the international community. In September, it conducted its fifth and most recent test.
Some senate Republicans, like Ted Cruz of Texas, said that the incoming administration would need to be more forceful with North Korea and said Obama's strategy had been one of "appeasement."
"There is no doubt that North Korea poses among the most serious national security risks facing our nation," said Cruz. "This administration's continued policy of weakness and appeasement toward North Korea, toward Iran, toward our enemies has only made them stronger, and it is my hope that the new administration will reassert American strength, and with regard to North Korea, that we will work with our allies and regional powers to rein in Kim Jong Un."
In an effort to slow down North Korea's nuclear advances, on Wednesday the UN Security Council imposed a cap on its coal exports, a major source of money for a largely economically-isolated country.
North Korea and the United States have never had formal diplomatic relations, but while on the campaign trail, Trump expressed willingness to sit down with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.
The United States does have relationships with North Korea's neighbors, but the calculus is complicated there too.
"China has two goals, and sometimes they can't be mutually satisfied. One is, they want to have a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, but they also want stability on the peninsula," Eskeland said. "They like this buffer of North Korea so that US troops don't come near their border again, so China has been, relatively speaking, cooperative in helping to deal with North Korea, but there's only so much that they can do because they might conflict with their other goal where they think the North Korean regime could be destabilized."
Eskeland said recently North Korea and China have become "estranged," but to destabilize the region could mean a refugee crisis at the border.
The possibility exists that in addition to having a young leader in North Korea, South Korea and the United States will also have two new, inexperienced leaders making the calls.
"I hope North Korea doesn't think they can take advantage of the political situation in South Korea, but obviously they're on an accelerated testing program of missiles, of their nuclear weapons, and that is a threat to the region and the boundaries of those to whom they pose a threat is growing," said Texas Rep. Mac Thornberry, chair of the House Armed Services Committee.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, the Obama administration's North Korea policy has been one of "strategic patience."
"What the Obama administration has been doing isn't working, and our enemies are getting stronger and more belligerent, and with the growing unrest in South Korea, the Korean peninsula is all the more perilous," Cruz said. "North Korea has a history of trying to test new presidents, and we need strong US leadership to make clear to North Korea that they should not use the South Korean unrest as an excuse for aggression against American troops or against South Korea."
The issue predates Obama's time in office.
"The fact is North Korea has presented us a challenge, whether it was the Bill Clinton administration, or the George W. Bush administration, or now Barack Obama. And I have no doubt that North Korea will continue to be a challenge into the Trump years," said Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "Blaming Barack Obama for North Korea is intellectually dishonest and just not true."
But Cruz is not the only Republican holding Obama accountable for the situation.
"The world is in tremendous turmoil, more than it's been in seven years, and it's all because of Barack Obama," said Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Lissandra Villa is a politics reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Lissandra Villa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.