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What North Korea wants

From Mike Chinoy
CNN Senior Asia Correspondent

A defiant Kim Jong Il refuses to heed international calls to drop its nuclear program
A defiant Kim Jong Il refuses to heed international calls to drop its nuclear program

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• Analysis: What are the options?
• Six-nation talks: Where they stand
• Interactive: N. Korea military might
• Timeline: Nuclear development
• Interactive: The nuclear club
• Satellite image: Nuclear facility
• Special report: Nuclear crisis

SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- Repeatedly in recent weeks, Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea has been packed with crowds shouting anti-American slogans. North Korea claims that more than a million people turned up for one such rally.

But behind the militant facade, North Korea is in serious trouble.

Its economy is in tatters and the population is still facing acute shortages of food, fuel and electricity.

This is largely due to the fact the United States cut off promised shipments of fuel oil to pressure the communist regime to give up its efforts on a uranium-based nuclear program.

In response, Pyongyang reactivated nuclear reactors mothballed since 1994, expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, and pulled out of a global nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

The government of Kim Jong Il is growing increasingly anxious that the Bush administration, with its campaign against the "axis of evil" -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- and its doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against hostile rogue states, may make North Korea its next target after Iraq.

"What has happened since 9/11 seems to confirm the assumption that the Americans have a regime change domino policy and they might be next," Steven Linton, an expert on North Korean affairs, told CNN.

Direct negotiations

This sense of vulnerability to American pressure is the key to understanding North Korea's behavior and its demand for direct negotiations with the U.S. on a non-aggression pact.

"They want the U.S. to treat them as equals. To accept that their security concerns are legitimate," James Hoare, a former British charge in Pyongyang, told CNN.

North Korea has repeatedly called for direct talks with the United States and an assurance it would not be attacked.

"They said that our security concerns about the nuclear program will be addressed if we addressed their concerns about possible hostilities by the U.S. against North Korea," former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg says.

But in the absence of negotiations, Kim Jong Il's regime has made clear its nuclear program will go ahead.

"They wanted not to be our enemy but they are afraid of us. Unless we are willing to deal with this in a serious way, we are going to wind up with a North Korea that has nuclear weapons to protect themselves," explains Leon Sigal, author of Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.

That is the stark choice facing the Bush administration.

Unless it reverses course, North Korea could have enough plutonium for a half dozen nuclear bombs in just a matter of months.

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