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Analysts: North Korea Expects Sanctions to End

A delegation of four American experts who visited North Korea recently describe a renewed confidence among North Korea's leaders as a result of its successful nuclear test -- and a clearer idea of why North Korea has agreed to return to the six-party talks.

The group says that North Korea's nuclear weapons program is still small and limited, and is not capable of large-scale growth in the next few years.

Because the North Koreans tested a small bomb, some experts worry that it might have been designed to be placed on a missile, but Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, says he does not believe the North Koreans have reached that point.

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Hecker estimates that North Korea has produced enough plutonium to date for six to eight small weapons. The American experts had the opportunity to question North Korean experts about their ongoing plutonium production program, said Hecker, who also visited North Korea three years ago. His conclusion: that the country can produce enough material for one bomb a year.

"Their plutonium production is at a steady but low level," Hecker says, "and they do not have the capacity to increase that for some time to come."

Hecker's group, which included a former CIA analyst and a former State Department special envoy, also found evidence of renewed vitality in North Korea's economy, especially in Pyongyang. They describe new shopping markets that cater to thousands of customers a day.

The American group questioned North Korea's leaders about their willingness to revive the so-called six party talks, involving the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. The talks on nuclear disarmament on the Korean peninsula have been stalled for more than a year.

The North Koreans claim the United States agreed to lift financial sanctions put in place a year ago. The U.S. government has put pressure on a Chinese bank in Macao, the Banco Delta Asia, which the leaders of North Korea had used to carry out key foreign-currency transactions.

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The ripple effect from this pressure has made it difficult for North Korea to operate in the global financial system, says John Lewis, a Stanford University professor who has been visiting North Korea for 20 years.

"The North Koreans say they expect the financial sanctions to be dealt with promptly," Lewis says, "and primarily by the Chinese, since it's, quote, 'their bank.'" Then, Lewis says, the talks will resume.

That account differs sharply from the stated U.S. position, which holds that the financial sanctions will only be lifted over time, as the North Koreans start the process of ending their nuclear weapons program, which is the goal of the six-party talks.

The wide gap between the two viewpoints is causing great concern among the Chinese leadership that when the six-party talks resume, they could collapse again quickly. Those talks are expected to take place in early December in Beijing.

In addition to Hecker and Lewis, the group included Jack Pritchard, former U.S. special envoy for North Korea; and Bob Karlin, a former CIA analyst.

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