BEIJING - North Korea's long history of nuclear ambitions makes it highly unlikely that the Bush administration will be able to persuade the country to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, according to Korea specialists here, in South Korea and in the United States.
The North's nuclear efforts, launched almost a half-century ago, have continued despite a collapsing economy, mass starvation, international inspections, signed agreements, threats of sanctions and at least implied threats of airstrikes. Its work offers sobering insights to the determination and single-mindedness of the world's most isolated regime.
"North Korea's been at it a long time," said Lee Jung Hoon, professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea - and it won't easily abandon its efforts. To convince North Korea actually to dismantle its nuclear program, the stated U.S. goal, would be "much harder."
"North Korea feels that nuclear weapons are necessary both economically and politically," said Park Syung Je of the Institute for Peace Affairs in Seoul. "If you look at North Korea, there is only one industry that is working, and that is the military industry."
The development of an indigenous Korean bomb began after the Korean War with the slow, deliberate pursuit of practical expertise. While North Korean leader Kim Il Sung rebuilt his army and ordered the digging of thousands of tunnels in preparation for the next Korean conflict, he dispatched scientists to the Soviet Union to study nuclear physics.
Under a cooperation agreement, the Soviets sent nuclear scientists to North Korea, helped it develop nuclear research capabilities and delivered a small research reactor that became operational in 1967.
Analysts disagree on how much help the Soviet Union gave Kim. China tested a bomb in 1964, and it, too, worked with the North but is not thought to have provided significant aid in weapon development.
But North Korea didn't need much help. Thanks to the work already done in the United States and Soviet Union, and the spread of necessary technical data, the North was able to develop a blueprint for weapons at a relatively low cost, compared with the billions of dollars it spent on conventional forces.
The North Korean economy at that time was strong, the country had natural reserves of uranium needed to fuel nuclear reactors - and the regime had a ready logic for developing the bomb: the United States.
"North Korea feels itself to be under fundamental threat from the U.S., and I have to say that over the years, the U.S. has done nothing to dispel that," said a senior diplomat here who has visited the North often.
"You hear all the time: 'We are a small country. We have no friends. We must defend ourselves against the Americans. We will do anything to preserve our way of life.' And quite frankly, we ought to take them seriously."
Since the United States disclosed the North's secret uranium enrichment project, in October, North Korea has expelled United Nations weapons inspectors, withdrawn from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, test-fired a short-range missile, reopened a mothballed nuclear reactor, shadowed a U.S. surveillance plane and issued inflammatory rhetoric about the danger of "nuclear war" on the peninsula.
Washington sought to downplay each action, arguing that North Korea wanted to create a crisis to win concessions from the United States.
Bush called for the nations of the region to work together in dealing with the North, but Pyongyang insisted on one-on-one talks with Washington, suggesting its security issues are with the United States alone.
The regime's insistence that the real dangers are from the United States has helped shape the North's outlook on the outside world. History books outside North Korea hold Kim Il Sung responsible for starting the Korean War by invading the South, but North Koreans are taught it was the other way around - and that the threat of another invasion looms.
Indoctrinated fear of the United States, combined with a mistrust even of allies, became a rationale for being a nuclear state.
"You don't trust anybody," the senior diplomat said, describing the North's outlook. "Then it becomes sensible to build a nuclear weapon. It's about survival in a dangerous world."
North Korea appeared to move from research to creating the means to build a bomb in the early 1980s, when work began at Yongbyon on a 5-megawatt reactor, possibly with Soviet help. Construction also began on a larger, 50-megawatt reactor and, significantly, on a nuclear reprocessing plant, which can extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel for use in nuclear weapons.
This work continued even as the North's economy began to collapse. Even as food shortages became severe, the regime's financial commitment to military spending remained unchanged, accounting today for as much as a third of the country's $16 billion economy.
"They have, throughout all of this, shielded their military industries from the effects of the wider decline of the economy," the senior diplomat said. And in a military that costs billions, he and others said, the nuclear program costs but a fraction of that, probably tens of millions of dollars a year.
International inspectors concluded that spent fuel from the 5-megawatt reactor, which became operational in 1986, was reprocessed several times by the early 1990s. Many experts and intelligence officials believe that North Korea extracted enough plutonium to make at least one or two bombs. North Korea denied at the time extracting enough fuel to make a bomb.
The North's economic situation continued to worsen in the early 1990s, and Korea analysts say this is when Pyongyang transformed fears about its budding nuclear program into a bargaining chip for aid.
A crisis strikingly similar to today's occurred in 1993 and 1994, when the Clinton administration agreed to supply the North with fuel oil and two light-water nuclear reactors that would provide the North with a reliable energy supply.
In exchange, Pyongyang said it would freeze its nuclear program.
Similarly in 1999, the North declared a moratorium on ballistic missile tests - a year after firing a long-range missile over Japan. It was rewarded with a partial easing of U.S. sanctions that had been in place since 1950.
"That's good business," said Park of the Institute for Peace Affairs. "If they do nothing, they cannot get anything, right? But when they did a test, they got money. So why should they stop?"
That's why some officials and analysts fear that North Korea could raise the stakes in the current crisis by testing a bomb.
"If they tested a nuclear weapon, then they can ask for maybe $10 billion or $100 billion," Park speculated. "So compared with the investment of money, they can get a lot of profit."
The North also knows it would have buyers for its nuclear arms and nuclear material if it chose to sell, Park said.
North Korea has for years been the world's largest exporter of ballistic missiles and missile technology to the developing world. With reports of sales to Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and Syria, the regime is believed to have earned hundreds of millions of dollars - a crucial flow of hard currency.
Aid from Pakistan
And North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has shown no sign of giving up his nation's potentially more profitable nuclear program. In learning how to enrich uranium, North Korea might have had assistance from Pakistan, after the 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration.
"North Korea sent 20 to 30 scientists to Pakistan," Park said. 'Well, I'm pretty sure Kim Jong Il didn't send them to Pakistan to learn how to play golf."
The Bush administration has insisted it will not negotiate an agreement like the one accepted by the Clinton administration in 1994. but it's unclear what, if anything, would persuade the North to give up its weapons program.
Said Jon B. Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington: "We've never had the opportunity to fully test the proposition that they're willing to give up everything in exchange for a full relationship economically and diplomatically with the rest of the world."