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And we begin this hour with a mixed message on North Korea's nuclear threat. Yesterday, we told you about a U.S. intelligence report that suggested North Korea has developed a nuclear weapon small enough to launch on a missile. Well, today, traveling in South Korea, Secretary of State John Kerry largely debunked that report. He insisted the North has not perfected the technology.
Still, by all accounts, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is bent on doing so, and analysts predict if he succeeds, it will have negative ripple effects across Northeast Asia. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Seoul.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: At a news conference, Kerry went out of his way to allay fears that North Korea's nuclear missile program had become a genuine threat to its neighbors and the United States.
SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: Let me make it clear, and this is the Pentagon's assessment that I'm giving you. It is inaccurate to suggest that the DPRK has fully tested, developed or demonstrated capabilities that are articulated in that report.
LANGFITT: Kerry noted that North Korea, known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, had conducted a nuclear test, its third earlier this year.
KERRY: So there's some kind of device, but that is very different from miniaturization and delivery and from tested delivery and other things. Does it get you closer to a line that is more dangerous? Yes.
LANGFITT: That line worries countries across the region. Analysts here don't think North Korea actually intends to use a nuclear missile, as Kerry said today.
KERRY: Kim Jong Un needs to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of a conflict would be.
LANGFITT: But neighbors worry that just having nuclear missiles will only embolden him. In 2010, North Korea shelled a South Korean island and was accused of sinking a South Korean naval ship. Chang Yong-seok says a North Korea with nuclear missiles might feel even more confident in launching conventional strikes. Chang is a senior researcher with the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.
CHANG YONG-SEOK: (Through translator) Kim Jong Un is definitely not a rash leader. I believe he's a very smart dictator. I believe he will use nuclear weapons as a very important source for his power and a base for backing up his actions.
LANGFITT: Chang says if Kim develops nuclear missiles, it will change the military balance of power on the Korean Peninsula and put more pressure on South Korea to arm itself.
YONG-SEOK: (Through translator) North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons is likely to persist, and the possibility of increasing public opinion in the South toward nuclearization is very concerning.
LANGFITT: Chang opposes a nuclear South Korea as it could contribute to a region-wide destabilizing arms race. Today, Kerry said the United States is willing to negotiate with North Korea if it takes the meaningful steps it's agreed to in the past to end its nuclear program.
KERRY: They simply have to be prepared to live up to the international obligations and standards which they have accepted and make it clear they will move to denuclearization as part of the talks, and those talks could begin. But they have to be really serious.
DR. JOHN DELURY: The idea that North Korea is going to give up their nuclear weapon anytime soon is illusory.
LANGFITT: John Delury is an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. He says Kim sees his nuclear weapons program as non-negotiable and fundamental to his regime's survival. Delury also thinks that when it comes to nuclear weapons, North Korea is likely to heed the lessons of past dictatorships.
DELURY: You can't convince the North Koreans they should give it up. Why would they give it up? Look at the one example of a country that gave it up recently, which is Libya. Libya was assured: Your regime will be secure even after you give up your nuclear weapon. And in a few years after that, lo and behold, there are NATO forces bombing Gadhafi out of power.
LANGFITT: Had Gadhafi held on to his weapons of mass destruction, perhaps NATO and the rebels who ultimately killed him might have had second thoughts. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.