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(News Focus) U.S. aim of denuclearizing N. Korea in question
By Lee Chi-dong
WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's latest nuclear test, the third of its kind, has raised key questions about the U.S. stated goal of denuclearizing the unruly communist nation.

   The State Department insists that renouncing the policy objective is unthinkable and dismisses speculation that the Obama administration may have shifted focus to curbing Pyongyang's sales of nuclear weapons and materials.

   "The United States and the international community will not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state," a department official told Yonhap News Agency, saying it is Washington's formal stance.

   "The United States remains committed to the September 2005 Joint Statement of the six-party talks and its core objective: the 'verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner,'" the official added in reference to Pyongyang's agreement with South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia to abandon all of its nuclear programs in return for political and economic incentives.

   It is uncertain whether the policy is viable, although it's apparently impossible for Washington to politically and diplomatically admit Pyongyang's possession of nuclear arms.

   U.S. military officials are understandably more realistic, recognizing new threats from a nuclear-armed North Korea.

   "One can make the case that the resurging Russian nuclear strength, the shadowy rise of the Chinese nuclear capability and the entry of new powers like North Korea and Pakistan to the nuclear world, as well as the unwelcome aspirations of others, have increased the complexities in today's strategic deterrence concepts," Maj. Gen. Stephen Wilson, who heads the Air Force Global Strike Command, said during a recent speech in Virgina.

   Testifying at his Senate confirmation hearing last month, Chuck Hagel, the nominee to be U.S. secretary of defense, called North Korea a "real nuclear power."

   Some experts call for a more realistic approach towards the North Korean nuclear crisis.

   "As a U.S. policy priority, denuclearization of North Korea is a policy corpse -- it is dead," said Larry Niksch, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "The United States needs a new strategy toward North Korea that ends the current priority to denuclearization."

   Still, informed sources say the remarks by Hagel and Wilson are based on a purely military viewpoint.

   "Given the characteristics of military strategy and operations, it's natural for the Pentagon to consider all possible scenarios," a source said. "It does not necessarily mean the U.S. accepts North Korea as a nuclear state."

   Chances are slim, according to many Korea watchers, that the Obama government will declare an end to its pursuit of dismantling North Korea's nuclear program.

   Shortly after his inauguration in 2009, Obama presented a vision of a nuclear-free world. He called for an effort to bolster the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

   Under the NPT, only five nations -- the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France -- are acknowledged as nuclear powers. Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT in 2003.

   One of the main pillars of the NPT is nonproliferation, which Obama is trying to revitalize as his top priority as he begins a second term.

   "America will continue to lead the effort to prevent the spread of the world's most dangerous weapons," Obama said in his State of the Union address earlier this month. "The regime in North Korea must know that they will only achieve security and prosperity by meeting their international obligations."

   U.S. officials have made clear that Washington will keep working to promote disarmament through bilateral and multilateral negotiations -- another pillar of the NPT.

   "The plan the Administration is pursuing is suited for our security needs and tailored for the global security threats of the 21st century," Rose Gottemoeller, acting under secretary of for arms control and international security, said in a separate speech in Virginia last week. "By maintaining and supporting a safe, secure and effective stockpile -- sufficient to deter any adversary and guarantee the defense of our allies -- at the same time that we pursue responsible reductions through arms control, we will make this world a safer place."