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Nukes too valuable for NKorea to relinquish

AFP | June 20, 2007

North Korea has invited UN inspectors to oversee the shutdown of its nuclear reactor, but analysts are sceptical about whether it will ever take the final step and give up its prized atomic arsenal.

Without such weapons to pressure the international community, "North Korea would be just another dirt-poor, Third-World tyranny," analyst Andrei Lankov wrote earlier this year.

The shutdown of Yongbyon reactor and reprocessing plant, which has produced enough plutonium for possibly up to a dozen nuclear weapons over its 20-year history, would cap the North's current stockpile of bomb-making material.

It would also be the first concrete achievement in almost four years of six-party negotiations.

Under the second phase of a six-nation February pact the North should declare and permanently disable all its nuclear programmes in return for major aid and diplomatic benefits, including relations with Washington.

The agreement's wording on the second phase refers only to "nuclear facilities" rather than to existing plutonium stockpiles and nuclear weapons. But the United States, Japan and South Korea insist they will accept nothing less than a nuclear-free peninsula.

This may well be a step too far for a regime which hailed 2006 as a "year of great victory" thanks to its first nuclear weapons last October.

Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Kookmin University, said Pyongyang -- which has been pursuing the bomb since the 1970s -- stands to lose much and gain almost nothing if it does finally gives up its nukes.

Their strategic value as a deterrent grew as Pyongyang became fearful of a US attack following the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, he wrote.

The North had also realised that it would be difficult to pressure the international community in future without nuclear weapons.

And the regime could "damage its own domestic power base if it gave up nuclear weapons, which it has portrayed at home as a symbol of the great victory of the military-first doctrine."

Lankov said the North can afford to shut down facilities because it does not need any more bombs. "A few nuclear weapons stashed away in a secret location are enough as a deterrent or a political means."

But in the article earlier this year, he forecast it would keep existing weapons "because that, to the North Korean regime, is the most rational policy."

The North's invitation last Saturday to UN nuclear inspectors raised hopes of progress after a months-long stalemate.

But analysts at a Peace Foundation International Symposium on Tuesday on prospects for changes in North Korea were equally sceptical about achieving a nuclear-free peninsula.

"North Korea does not regard China any longer as a patron who will protect its security ... so it is difficult for North Korea to give up nuclear weapons," wrote Zhao Huji, an academic and member of the Chinese Communist Party's central committee, in a paper delivered at the forum.

"I don't think North Korea will easily give up its nuclear programme," said Baek Seung-Ju, of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses.

Political science professor Kim Tae-Hyo, writing in Wednesday's JoongAng Daily, said the North was very likely to demand that it not be asked about its past nuclear weapons in return for giving up Yongbyon "and that it will likely continue to pursue becoming a small yet definite nuclear state."

So could the world live with a nuclear-armed North? It might have to, according to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies released just after the February agreement.

This raised the possibility "that North Korea will continue to build nuclear weapons to 2020 and beyond" and that the nuclear issue may be resolved only upon Korean reunification.

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