SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - North Korea's plans to launch a rocket as early as this week in defiance of warnings threatens to undo years of fitful negotiations toward dismantling the regime's nuclear program.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan have told the North that any rocket launch - whether it's a satellite or a long-range missile - would violate a 2006 U.N. Security Council Resolution prohibiting Pyongyang from any ballistic activity, and could draw sanctions.
North Korea said sanctions would violate the spirit of disarmament agreements, and said it would treat the pacts as null and void if punished for exercising its sovereign right to send a satellite into space.
"Even a single word critical of the launch" from the Security Council will be regarded as a "blatant hostile act," a spokesman with North Korea's foreign ministry said Thursday, according the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency. "All the processes for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which have been pushed forward so far, will be brought back to what used to be before their start and necessary strong measures will be taken."
That would be a sharp reversal from June 2008 when the North made a promising move toward disarmament, dramatically blowing up a cooling reactor at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex.
But the regime routinely backtracks on agreements, refuses to abide by international rules and wields its nuclear program like a weapon when it needs to win concessions from Washington or Seoul, analysts say.
"History has shown them that the more provocative they are, the more attention they get. The more attention they get, the more they're offered," Peter M. Beck, a Korean affairs expert who teaches at American University in Washington and Yonsei University in Seoul, said Sunday.
Despite years of negotiations and impoverished North Korea's growing need for outside help, it's clear the talks have done little to curb the regime's drive to build - and sell - its atomic arsenal, experts say.
"If this is Kim Jong Il's welcoming present to a new president, launching a missile like this and threatening to have a nuclear test, I think it says a lot about the imperviousness of this regime in North Korea to any kind of diplomatic overtures," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in an interview broadcast on "Fox News Sunday."
North Korea, a notoriously secretive country, has been challenging the international community with its atomic ambitions since 1993, when the regime briefly quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty amid suspicions it was secretly developing atomic weapons.
In 1994, North Korea and the U.S. worked out an agreement that promised Pyongyang oil and two light water nuclear reactors if the country would give up its nuclear ambitions. The power-generating
reactors cannot be easily used to make bombs.
Four years later, North Korea fired a multistage Taepodong-1 missile over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. The North pledged in 1999 to freeze long-range missile tests, but later threatened to restart its nuclear program and resume testing missiles amid delays in construction of the reactors.
In 2002, Pyongyang admitted to a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of the 1994 agreement, prompting the U.S., Japan and South Korea to halt oil supplies promised as part of the pact. The North withdrew again from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, and announced it had reactivated its nuclear power facilities.
That August, six nations - the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S. - began negotiations on disarmament now known as the "six-party talks," eventually resulting in a landmark accord on Sept. 19, 2005. The agreement called for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid, diplomatic recognition and a security guarantee from Washington.
As the talks continued in fits and starts, the North in 2006 carried out a surprise 5 a.m. test-fire of six missiles, including its Taepodong-2 long-range missile, which U.S. and South Korean officials believe has the potential to strike Alaska.
The rocket fizzled just 42 seconds after takeoff but the launch, denounced as "provocative" by Washington, angered even North Korea's longtime ally and main donor, China, which agreed to a U.S.-sponsored U.N. Resolution 1695 condemning the move.
Later that year, an underground nuclear test prompted U.N. Resolution 1718, which bans the North from any ballistic activity. The U.S., South Korea and Japan say that sending satellites into space since the technology for launching a satellite and a missile are virtually the same.
By February, Pyongyang agreed to concrete steps toward disarmament: disabling its main nuclear facilities in exchange for the equivalent of 1 million tons of energy aid and other concessions. Disablement began that November.
But the North halted the process in 2008 amid a dispute with Washington over how to verify its 18,000-page account of past atomic activities. The last round of talks - in December 2008, weeks before President Barack Obama moved into the White House - made little apparent progress.
Analysts speculated that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il was holding out for talks with Obama. But in forming its North Korea policy, the fledgling Obama administration has made it clear it will work through the six-party process.
The rocket launch scheduled for April 4-8, at a time when Pyongyang has custody of two American reporters detained March 17 at North Korea's border with China, could provide the opening North Korea needs to force direct talks with Washington, analysts said.
"The timing couldn't be better for North Korea. It strengthens the North's bargaining position with the U.S. in dealing with the nuclear issue. They can try to link these two issues in some way," said Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group.
Bringing everyone, including North Korea, back to the talks will be "rough going," said Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank.
But South Korea's envoy expressed confidence the talks would be back on track soon. "I am looking forward to seeing the talks resume after certain amount of time, and I am not deeply worried or concerned about resumption of the talks," Wi Sung-lac said last week.
Ultimately, the talks may never achieve their aim, Beck said.
"It may very well be that in the end, the North will try to play it both ways: continue to negotiate for goodies while never giving up its nuclear trump card," he said in his House testimony. "After all, that is essentially what it has done for the past 16 years."
Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim and Kwang-tae Kim contributed to this report.
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