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For North Korea, giving up atomic weapons is a risk

SEOUL (Reuters) - In wintry Pyongyang this week, the challenge for President Barack Obama’s first envoy to North Korea is how to convince its obsessively secretive leader that he would be mad not to talk with the outside world about disarming.

U.S. Army helicopters carrying South Korean army soldiers take off during a South Korea-U.S. combined air assault exercise in Yeoju, southeast of Seoul, December 8, 2009. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

From leader Kim Jong-il’s point of view, the insanity might be to give up his nuclear weapons.

Kim’s bid to become a nuclear warrior not only underpins the legitimacy of his 15-year iron grip over the world’s first communist dynasty, it also forces world powers to treat his backwater state with respect.

Since succeeding his father in 1994, Kim has put his million-strong military at the top of society and made the building of an atomic bomb a patriotic masterstroke that keeps at bay a United States portrayed as just itching to invade.

His propaganda machine also squarely places the blame on a hostile outside world for the economic shambles the North has descended into under Kim’s rule.

“North has absolutely no interest in normalizing relations with the United States. As soon as the North does that, it loses all reason to exist,” said B.R. Myers, an expert on the North’s ideology at Dongseo University.

“As soon as people think it is possible to get along with America, they will ask themselves why they need a ‘military first’ policy.”

Obama has waited almost a year since taking office to send an envoy to the North, a visit that follows an array of not-quite-official meetings between the two sides, most notably a trip to Pyongyang in August by former President Bill Clinton to arrange the release of two jailed U.S. journalists.

Few, including the U.S. government, expect a breakthrough and it was unclear if part-time envoy Stephen Bosworth would even be able to meet anyone more senior than the North’s top official to the six-party talks that Pyongyang walked away from a year ago.

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Washington has made clear it has no new incentives to offer Kim and will not countenance a return to the years of on-off nuclear negotiations, which have allowed him to wring a series of financial rewards for agreements on which he later reneged.

A 2005 agreement, under which the North starts on the road to disarmament and receives substantial aid and security guarantees in return, is in place. It is that which Washington is urging Pyongyang to implement, as well as to resurrect talks with it, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.

Some analysts believe Kim’s key objectives are for Washington to accept his country as a nuclear weapons power -- which Obama has refused to do -- and sign a peace treaty to finally end the 1950-53 Korean War, whose most visible sign in one of the world’s most heavily defended borders that has divided the peninsula ever since.

For many analysts the underlying principle for the man dubbed at home the “Dear Leader” is simply to keep his unquestioned grip on power and ensure one of his sons continues the Kim dynastic rule over what has become one of the world’s poorest societies.

The latest sign of that was an abrupt, and potentially high-risk, revaluation of the currency that overnight reduced the value of all local currency savings by 1/100th.

“I’ve never seen the place look so poor,” said one regular visitor to the North who had just returned from his latest trip.

He argued the currency change were aimed at taking away the relative wealth of those who had prospered in the mushrooming markets outside state control.

“People would see traders getting wealthy and would want to be like them. That poses a threat to the government,” he said.

The new measure itself is also laden with risk for Kim, who basks in state-managed idolatry and whom human rights groups say routinely dispatches to prison, or worse, those who commit even minor offences that might be interpreted as a challenge to his government’s authority.

There have been widespread, but unconfirmed, reports of outrage over the government’s currency revaluation.

South Korea’s biggest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, quoted unnamed sources as saying North Korean women trading in the private markets were emerging as a formidable force against the move.

“The women are tough and defiant. And now they are angry. Markets are turning into places of protest against (Kim),” it quoted one source as saying.

Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Alex Richardson