(ATTN: UPDATES with Wi Sung-lac's remarks, other details throughout)
By Hwang Doo-hyong
WASHINGTON, April 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea will not abandon its nuclear weapons as it views them not only as a deterrent against regional interference but as a tool to attract international attention and economic aid, the commander of U.S. forces in Korea said Tuesday.
"I do not see that he will give up his nuclear capability," Gen. Walter Sharp told the Senate Armed Services Committee, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
North Korea is "balancing a reliance on Chinese support and patronage with a desire for maintaining independence," Sharp said, while the regime is also "engaging the U.S. with the likely goal of garnering financial, food and energy assistance, as well as security guarantees.
"A key component of this multi-dimensional strategy is North Korea's nuclear program," the commander said. "North Korea, which is assessed to have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons, ultimately seeks international recognition as a de facto nuclear weapons state."
Sharp's remarks come amid a flurry of diplomacy to revive the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear dismantlement, deadlocked for more than two years over the North's nuclear and missile tests and other provocations.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit South Korea this weekend, and South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, flew here earlier in the day and met with Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for Asian and Pacific Affairs, and other U.S. officials.
North Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, flew to Beijing last week to meet with Chinese officials at the same time that Campbell visited the Chinese capital. Kim did not meet with Campbell there.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter will fly to Pyongyang this month in an attempt to broker an agreement on North Korea's denuclearization, a peace treaty and humanitarian food aid to the impoverished communist state. In 1994, Carter met with then-North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and arranged a bilateral denuclearization deal during the first North Korean nuclear crisis.
Sharp said he does not expect any immediate collapse of the North Korean regime despite chronic food shortages and economic hardship.
For the past year, Kim Jong-il has been "accelerating" plans for the third generation power transition to his third son, Jong-un, the commander said. "North Korea's ruling elite, whose position depends upon the status quo, appears unwavering in its loyalty to the Kim regime and will likely support the succession process."
Few analysts see any chance of an imminent collapse of the regime, citing tight control of information, the lack of a civil society and investment in the status quo by the ruling elite and the 1.2 million-strong military.
Sharp also expressed concerns about North Korea's ballistic missile programs.
"North Korea's inventory of ballistic missiles currently exceeds 800 airframes, which are capable of ranging targets from the ROK and Japan to Guam and the Aleutian Islands," he said. "If left unchecked, North Korea will likely develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capability, which could threaten the U.S. and its allies."
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in January that North Korea's missiles and nuclear weapons will pose a threat to the U.S. within five years. Some experts say Pyongyang may have already developed nuclear warheads small enough for missile payloads.
Sharp buttressed Gates' remarks, saying, "I think that the timeline that Secretary Gates gave is obviously reasonable and feasible."
North Korea has made a series of provocations in recent months, including the sinking of a South Korean warship and shelling of a border island that killed 50 people last year.
Emerging from a meeting with Campbell, South Korea's Wi told reporters that North Korea's apology for the provocations "is not directly linked to the resumption of the six-party talks but is a factor affecting the six-party talks."
Wi reiterated the importance of the nuclear talks in the North's denuclearization.
"We will go there," he said. "But before going there, we will create the right condition for productive six-party talks."
He expected Clinton will discuss in Seoul "the right conditions for the resumption of the six-party talks," but added, "We don't expect any dramatic development on that subject at that meeting."
Pyongyang refused to apologize for the provocations and walked out of a rare inter-Korean dialogue in February, thwarting hopes for an early return to the six-party talks.
Washington wants Pyongyang to mend ties with Seoul before another round of the denuclearization-for-aid talks takes place.
The U.S. rebuffed North Korea's proposal for defense ministers' talks in February, calling on North Korea first to address South Korea's grievances over the torpedoing of the warship Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
U.S. officials, however, say they are assessing the food situation in North Korea with an eye toward possible aid.
Critics say North Korea is exaggerating its food shortages to hoard food in preparation for its distribution on the 100th anniversary of the birth of its late leader Kim Il-sung, the father of current leader, Kim Jong-il, on April 15 next year.
Wi said that food aid to North Korea is "a humanitarian issue that has nothing to do with the resumption of the six-party talks," but fell short of committing aid to the North.
"We are considering providing food aid to North Korea," he said. "However, we need to evaluate the food situation in North Korea before making any decision on that issue. We are exchanging opinions on that issue with the U.S."
South Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, speaks to reporters in front of the main gate of the State Department in Washington D.C. on April 12. (Yonhap)
Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, (R) speaks to a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. on April 12. At left is Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific Command. (Yonhap)
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