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Seoul Seeking to Pressure N. Korea to Halt Nuclear Program - 2002-10-18

The South Korean government says it will try to dissuade North Korea from building nuclear weapons during coming ministerial talks. However, mounting public anger over Pyongyang's weapons program may make it difficult for Seoul to continue its policy of engaging the North.

The South Korean government says it will pressure Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program during talks that begin Saturday in North Korea.

The meeting, however, is likely to be overshadowed by a report from the U.S. government that North Korea has admitted it is building nuclear weapons.

South Korea's news media have responded angrily to the report. Some papers call the weapons program "a stab in the back".

The editorial in the right-wing Choson Ilbo is typical. It accuses North Korea of duplicity and says that behind a smiling face and peaceful gestures, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, has concealed a sinister plot.

The paper says it will be absurd to discuss further economic assistance to the North. It foresees a possible security crisis if North Korea employs its characteristic brinkmanship in future negotiations with Washington.

Professor Lee Jung-hoon of Seoul's Yonsei University shares that view. Professor Lee, who specializes in North Korean issues, says Pyongyang is unlikely to easily surrender its nuclear program.

"This is the only leverage North Korea has with dealing with the outside world. … And therefore to expect North Korea to let go of this only leverage that she has in dealing with the outside world, what would be left of North Korea then? She will feel extremely vulnerable and therefore I think it will be a very difficult process in terms of North-U.S. dialogue, because the U.S. wants something that North Korea will find very difficult to let go of," the professor said.

Eight years ago, the peninsula came to the verge of war, sparked by fears that North Korea was producing weapons-grade plutonium. The crisis ended after Pyongyang promised the United States it would dismantle its nuclear program, in return for two light-water reactors to produce power.

One discordant voice among mainstream news outlets comes from the left-wing Hankyoreh newspaper. It demands to see evidence to prove Washington's charges that North Korea has admitted to having a uranium-enrichment program.

But the Joong Ang Ilbo says Pyongyang's declaration dealt a fatal blow to the South Korean government's engagement with the North.

South Korean President Kim Dae Jung's pursuit of friendly ties with the North led to a landmark summit in Pyongyang two years ago. Since then, there have been a number of contacts between people from both sides of the border.

North Korea has not responded to the reports about its nuclear program.