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Accord allows North Korea to keep nuclear weapons

BEIJING—Now that North Korea has agreed to shut down and seal its nuclear facilities within 60 days, the hardest challenge ahead may be ridding the country of all of its nuclear weapons, several analysts said Wednesday

The accord signed Tuesday in Beijing compels North Korea to list all of its nuclear facilities, weapons and atomic fuel stockpiles but doesn't require it to hand over bombs immediately. That would come in a later phase.

"I don't see how the North Koreans would be willing to give up the weapons they've already produced," said Ruediger Frank, a scholar on North Korean issues at the East Asian Institute of the University of Vienna in Austria.

The problem, Frank said, is that nuclear monitors don't know precisely how many bombs Pyongyang has.

"If you read those CIA reports, they say `six to eight.' But which is it? Six, seven or eight?" Frank asked. "You don't really know for sure."

U.S. officials say they think that North Korea has reprocessed about 110 pounds of plutonium for use as material in nuclear bombs, but they acknowledge that the estimate is based on extrapolating from the reprocessing of fuel rods at the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which the country now has pledged to shut down and seal.

Under the accord signed by North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, Japan and the United States, North Korea will allow monitors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to return to the country and verify the shutdown of its nuclear facilities.

Still to be seen is how much access North Korea allows the monitors, and whether Pyongyang seeks to retain control of some weapons-grade nuclear material.

"There's going to be some inefficiencies in the reprocessing, so they could fudge it a little bit," said Daniel A. Pinkston, a Korea expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif.

But proponents say that the nuclear accord, in which heavy fuel oil will be exchanged for North Korean actions on nuclear programs, could build momentum toward genuine progress.

Until last year, the Bush administration had said it would accept only a deal with North Korea that led to "complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement" of the country's nuclear program. That demand led to deadlock in negotiations, and the State Department later jettisoned the phrase.

The ink wasn't even dry on the accord this week, however, before critics howled that it was far from foolproof and might stir other "rogue" nations to action.

Among those to complain was John Bolton, a former Bush administration insider who left his post as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations only a few weeks ago.

"It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world, (that) if you hold out long enough and wear down the State Department negotiators, eventually you get rewarded, in this case with massive shipments of heavy fuel oil," Bolton said on CNN.

Some other North Korea-watchers agreed that the deal could encourage troublesome states to arm themselves in hopes of a big payout.

"From now on, both Pyongyang and assorted `pariah states' will know how to treat the U.S. and by extension the world community," Andrei N. Lankov, a North Korea expert teaching at Seoul's Kookmin University, said in an e-mail interview. "They will know that: A. Blackmail pays if supported by really threatening acts; B. This payment arrives very fast."

Iran, which is in a standoff with the West over its nuclear program, appears to be watching the North Korea situation closely. Some strategists fret that small nations in Central Asia and elsewhere may be tempted to seek nuclear materials unaccounted for from the former Soviet Union and follow North Korea's lead.

"What we may well see is a number of these very small countries (acting up) that have no other power than to disturb the world order by outrageous behavior," said Allan Behm, a former intelligence official in Canberra, Australia.

However, several experts said the United States and North Korea had arrived at the accord for reasons of their own that coincided only recently.

"The U.S. government just really wanted to settle this one because of the mess in the Middle East and other problems," said Gavan McCormack, an expert on Northeast Asia who's retired from the Australian National University.

North Korea, facing perennial shortages of energy, viewed U.S. preoccupation with Iraq as lessening the chances of an American pre-emptive strike on its facilities.

"If you go back a couple of years, they were very concerned about whether they were on the `hit list,' " Pinkston said. "I think it's clear in Pyongyang now that that's not the case."

China, which was angered by North Korea's Oct. 9 nuclear test, also may have leaned on Pyongyang, which gets most of its crude oil and much of its food from its neighbor. If that was the case, U.S. officials say, they don't know the details.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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