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North Korea's Nuclear Programs Move Forward, Not Back, in 2006

Despite a push for a diplomatic breakthrough at the end of 2006, the effort to keep North Korea out of the nuclear weapons club not only did not succeed - it lost ground. In October, the North defied international warnings and conducted its first nuclear test. Despite the resulting international sanctions, an emboldened Pyongyang says it will hold on to its nuclear weapons until its demands are fulfilled. VOA Seoul correspondent Kurt Achin takes a look back at year in which, some security experts say, the world became a slightly more dangerous place.

2006 drew to a close very much in the same way it began: with the United States and its partners demanding Pyongyang take steps to get out of the business of making nuclear weapons - and with Pyongyang saying no.

Despite a week of arduous diplomacy in Beijing in December, participants in the six-nation nuclear talks announced no concrete steps toward getting North Korea to live up to its denuclearization promises.

Chief U.S. delegate, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, said the talks were going into recess, and might resume within weeks.

"Of course we're disappointed that we weren't able to get this done. But as I said let's see what we can do," he said.

Over the past three years, the United States, Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea have promised the impoverished North economic and diplomatic benefits, if it ends its nuclear programs.

Despite having pledged in principle in September 2005 to start dismantling its nuclear facilities, Pyongyang maintained throughout 2006 it would not move toward keeping the promise until the United States lifts financial measures against it. Washington says the sanctions are meant to stop North Korean money laundering and counterfeiting.

Pyongyang stuck to that demand during the December session of the six-party talks and avoided all discussion on disarming.

The North Koreans opened the talks by declaring their country a nuclear power, and issuing a robust list of demands - a sign, regional experts say, that they feel emboldened by a line they crossed on October 9.

That is when Pyongyang proudly announced it had conducted an underground test of a nuclear weapon.

Kim Taewoo, senior analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, says that single blast rewrote the whole security equation for North Asia.

He says the test made it justifiable for other Asian countries, like Japan, to consider developing nuclear arsenals. At the same time, attempts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons around the world were severely weakened. He adds that the fragile diplomatic and military balance between North and South Korea was also distorted.

After the nuclear test, the United Nations Security Council responded quickly - unanimously passing economic sanctions against the North. Even China, Pyongyang's longtime ally, voted for the sanctions.

The political reverberations in South Korea, still technically at war with the North since the 1950s, were immediate.

Lawmakers in South Korea angrily grilled officials in the administration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun about his policy of engagement with North Korea.

President Roh, seeking to build on a historic North-South summit in 2000, favors an uncritical and financially generous approach toward the North. The so-called Sunshine policy is meant to encourage North Korea to open up and end its isolation.

But with the nuclear test, critics around the world, and even Mr. Roh, questioned whether Pyongyang was living up to its side of the bargain.

In an October speech, Mr. Roh announced the policy would need some "adjustments", although he did not abandon engagement.

Most experts in South Korea and elsewhere say seeking engagement is preferable to the risks of tension and conflict on the peninsula. The debate is between those who say the policy needs to demand more reciprocity from the North, and those who say uncritical patience will pay off in the long run.

Lee Jang-hie, president of the South Korean branch of the International Law Association, supports that view, and says the United States deserves some blame for the stalled nuclear talks.

He says North Korea has no choice but to hang on to its nuclear negotiation card, because the United States will not guarantee the North's regime security.

The United States, on the other hand, thinks that Mr. Roh's policy and aid from both South Korea and China have encouraged Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons. The U.S. government has urged both Beijing and Seoul to thoroughly enforce the U.N. sanctions limiting shipments of weapons materials and luxury goods to North Korea - something both governments have been hesitant about.

Some regional security experts think there is little that will persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear programs. Even tougher sanctions, which could cut off some of the international aid Pyongyang has relied on for a decade to feed its people, may have no effect.

Park Yung-ho, of Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification, thinks the North has no choice but to hang on to its nuclear weapons - because they are the only remaining semblance of power and legitimacy for the failed dynasty of the ruling Kim family.

Park says the only way out of the nuclear problem is for North Korea's system to transform dramatically.

However, Kim Sung-han, an analyst with Seoul's government-supported Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, say there are some reasons for hope in the nuclear discussions as 2007 dawns.

He says 2007 leads up to key political events in three of the countries in the six-party talks. China will be making final preparations for the 2008 Olympics; the United States will be heading into its 2008 presidential election; and South Korea votes in December for a new president. All three events increase the pressure to resolve the nuclear issue.

If the talks fail to progress, and North Korea deepens its commitment to nuclear weapons, Washington and other countries have warned, it will become more estranged from the rest of the world. As a result, the North's already severe economic hardships may only get worse.