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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 34 (December 18, 2008)

All Headlines 11:23 December 18, 2008

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

North Korea's Nuclear Capability under Scrutiny

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea's nuclear weapons capability again emerged as a major global concern following the release of a U.S. defense report describing the socialist country as a nuclear power. The controversial report made headlines just as chief negotiators from the six-party nuclear disarmament talks were meeting in Beijng in early December.

The U.S. Joint Forces Command (JFC) issued the report, titled "Joint Operating Environment 2008: Challenges and Implications for the Future Joint Force," on Nov. 25. It designated North Korea as an Asian nuclear power along with China, India, Pakistan and Russia.

Still, Washington has thus far refused to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power despite its underground testing of a nuclear device in 2006, and the U.S. Defense Department later distanced itself from the report, calling it a "mistake." On Dec. 10, the State Department said the report does not represent the U.S. government's official position.

"(The report) is not our national policy," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "And the document they referenced does not represent the official views of the United States."

The report and ensuing fuss over its ramifications stirred up controversy in South Korea, which has also been reluctant to recognize the North as a nuclear state for fear that such recognition could give Pyongyang more leverage in ongoing negotiations. Both Seoul and Washington are also concerned that it could encourage an arms race between the region's neighbors.

North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency earlier in the day cited the U.S. defense report, saying it was the "first time that a U.S. government report has acknowledged and announced that North Korea is a nuclear weapons state."

The JFC, however, released a statement on its Web site refuting the report, saying it "does not reflect official U.S. government policy regarding the status of North Korea. The U.S. government has long said that we will never accept North Korea as a nuclear power."

The remarks echo a similar statement by the Pentagon on Dec. 9. "As a matter of policy, we do not recognize North Korea as a nuclear state. What was contained in a recent Joint Forces Command report does not reflect official U.S. government policy regarding the status of North Korea." The Joint Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Virginia, is responsible for preparing the U.S. military to meet future threats.

The controversy comes at a sensitive time when chief nuclear envoys of the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia were meeting in Beijing to seek agreement on a verification regime for a nuclear list presented by the North in June.

The meeting failed to produce an agreement, however, with the key sticking point being sample taking from North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Kim Kye-gwan, Pyongyang's chief nuclear negotiator, expressed deep opposition to the issue, saying that allowing samples would be tantamount to North Korea undressing itself in front of the hostile U.S.

Analysts have said the collapse of the talks is a sign that the North has no intention of dealing further with the outgoing Bush administration, and is awaiting the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, a separate article by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in the January/February 2009 edition of "Foreign Affairs" magazine also said North Korea has built several nuclear bombs. The article appeared just days after the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department rebutted the JFC report.

Titled "Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age," Gates writes that there is a "potentially toxic mix of rogue nations, terrorist groups, and nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. North Korea has built several bombs, and Iran seeks to join the nuclear club."

North Korea detonated its first nuclear device in October 2006 and claimed the test was a success. Debate continues, however, among experts and policymakers over whether the detonation should in fact be seen as a success due to its low yield.

U.S. and South Korean intelligence authorities have said the North has enough plutonium to produce several nuclear warheads, but have yet to officially confirm whether it already possesses a specific number.

Seoul's Foreign Minister, Yu Myung-hwan, said on Dec. 10 that the U.S. defense report was evidently in error. "We have confirmed with ranking U.S. officials that the report was clearly in error and would never be an official stance of the U.S. government." The minister stressed that Seoul and Washington's position of not categorizing the North as a nuclear power remains unchanged.

Seoul's Defense Minister, Lee Sang-hee, also said North Korea would never be recognized as a nuclear state and noted the U.S. State Department's dismissal of the report. He warned, however, that Pyongyang could try to use Washington's mistake to its advantage and promote itself as a nuclear power.

Pentagon spokesman Stewart Upton also said a day earlier that the report "is not meant to be a statement of policy and specifically states on the second page that (it) is speculative in nature and is only intended to serve as a starting point for discussions about the future security environment."

North Korea has long questioned the legitimacy of the nonproliferation regime that guarantees nuclear weapons for five existing nuclear powers, the U.S., China, Russia, Britain and France, while denying other states the weapons.

Pyongyang bolted from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty soon after a fresh North Korean nuclear crisis erupted in 2002 over U.S. claims that Pyongyang had clandestinely developed a uranium-based nuclear program in violation of the 1994 Geneva framework agreement.

North Korea still does not acknowledge the existence of the uranium program or its proliferation of nuclear technology to Syria, a major sticking point in the ongoing six-party talks that began in 2003 as a replacement for the 1994 agreement.

North Korea says it is not an NPT member and therefore has the right to develop and possess a nuclear arsenal like India and Pakistan, both of whom have mended ties with the U.S. in recent years, though they had previously been subjected to sanctions from the U.S. and its allies.

Jack Pritchard, president of the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute, recently urged the incoming administration to promptly address the North Korean nuclear issue. "The longer North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, the harder it will be for them to give it up."

Obama has said his administration will seek drastic curtailment of nuclear arms globally, including the U.S., to buttress the fragile NPT, which has been under attack for its failure to bring about nuclear disarmament among the five nuclear powers.

The U.S. president-elect Barack Obama has said he will support the six-party nuclear talks on ending North Korea's nuclear ambitions while also seeking more direct bilateral engagement. While on the campaign trail, Obama acknowledged that the North has eight nuclear weapons but did not elaborate.

A senior Pentagon official, meanwhile, reiterated Washington's stance on Dec. 13 that North Korea is not a nuclear power, but confided that intelligence reports do suggest Pyongyang has several nuclear bombs.

The official said the quote by Gates "reflects the judgment of the U.S. government intelligence community," and cited as the most recent example a report of the National Intelligence Council (NIC) released in November.

The NIC report, titled "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World," contains a passage that reads: "The possibility of a future disruptive regime change or collapse occurring in a nuclear weapon state such as North Korea also continues to raise questions regarding the ability of weak states to control and secure their nuclear arsenals."

While some say the North has developed a primitive nuclear warhead that cannot be loaded onto a delivery system, others claim Pyongyang's technology is more advanced. For its part, North Korea considers its nuclear arsenal as its only working deterrent against an outside invasion, and has been encouraged by Pakistan and India having resumed amicable ties with the U.S. years after performing their own nuclear tests.

A member of South Korea's ruling party, meanwhile, said on Dec. 16 that North Korea appears to have succeeded in developing up to 20 small nuclear bombs light enough to be loaded onto conventional missiles, posing a greater threat to neighboring states than larger weapons.

Rep. Kim Hak-song of the Grand National Party said: "The U.S. government says North Korea could have produced seven to eight nuclear weapons while South Korea says it could have up to seven. These estimates are correct if we consider that it takes 6-7 kilograms of plutonium to make a 20-kiloton warhead." Kim said at a security forum organized by the state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.

"But I think differently. If North Korea has succeeded in developing small-size nuclear warheads, it takes not 6-7 kilograms but 2-3 kilograms of plutonium to make each nuclear weapon, and if that is the case, the North could have produced over 20 nuclear weapons," said Kim, who currently chairs the National Assembly committee on national defense.

"We should recognize the existence of the North's nuclear bombs and strengthen our national defense against North Korea's possible nuclear threats," he said.

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