SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea is threatening to restore its plutonium-producing nuclear plant because it feels it can win more through brinkmanship than the aid it stands to lose, analysts said on Thursday.
Each step the North makes to restore its Yongbyon nuclear plant squeezes regional powers to find a way to bring Pyongyang back to the bargaining table, while giving the impoverished state more cards to play once it returns, they said.
“I would be surprised if they are pushing for a full-on breakdown and crisis,” said Peter Beck, a specialist in Korean affairs who teaches at American University in Washington.
“At this point, I think it is just an attention-grabbing move to make North Korea a higher priority in Washington.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday that the North had expelled U.N. monitors from its Soviet-era nuclear plant and plans to start reactivating it next week, rolling back a disarmament-for-aid deal and putting pressure on Washington.
In November, North Korea began to disable Yongbyon as part of the deal it reached with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States in steps designed to put the plant out of the business for at least a year.
North Korea may be acting now because it feels it has the Bush administration, battling a financial crisis at home and diplomatic disputes with Russia, over a barrel, they said.
The Bush team, looking for a foreign policy success with just a few months left in office, may be willing to offer last-ditch concessions and if not, Pyongyang will be in a stronger bargaining position when a new president takes office in January.
“Bush, who hoped he would restore his reputation by North Korea’s denuclearisation, is really in a quagmire and North Korea wouldn’t miss out on this chance to put pressure on him,” said Park Yong-ho, at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Confronted with the apparent unraveling of a rare diplomatic achievement by the Bush administration, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said North Korea’s actions had “by no means” killed off the country’s nuclear disarmament.
Carl Baker, a director at the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank in Hawaii, said: “Clearly, the Americans do not see the issue as being not negotiable any more. I would have to believe there has been some indication from the North Koreans that they are willing to talk.”
Earlier this month, U.S. and South Korean officials said leader Kim Jong-il may have suffered a stroke, raising questions about succession in Asia’s only communist dynasty and who is making decisions about its nuclear plans.
“I do not think they want a full-on crisis because they have to work out internally on sorting out the succession issue,” Beck said.
One thing secretive North Korea may be hoping to win from the Bush administration is a flexible verification system that would keep inspectors from poking around in places Pyongyang does not want them to be, analysts said.
Liu Jianchao, the chief Foreign Ministry spokesman for China, the North’s biggest benefactor, told reporters on Thursday: “We hope that all sides can show flexibility and solve the verification and other related issues as soon as possible.”
Last month, North Korea said it planned to restart Yongbyon because it was angry at Washington for not taking it off its terrorism blacklist. Washington says it will de-list Pyongyang once it allows inspectors to verify claims it made about its nuclear inventory.
The North, which then said last week it did not care about removal from the terrorism list, may still be trying to get off the list because it then stands to increase its meager trade and better tap into international finance, analysts said.
Energy-starved North Korea, however, stands to lose out on the remainder of the 1 million tonnes of heavy fuel oil, or aid of similar value, that has been heading its way in pieces for progress it has previously made in the nuclear deal.
But analysts said the state is used to hardships and its propaganda apparatus will blame the United States for not living up to the nuclear deal, saying Washington wants to topple Pyongyang’s leaders by force.
“The U.S. call for ‘peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue’ or ‘talks’ is a trick to deceive the public opinions at home and abroad and that the U.S. is persistently seeking only pre-emptive attack on the DPRK (North Korea),” the North’s communist party newspaper said on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Kim Junghyun in Seoul and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Jeremy Laurence