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SEOUL — Han Chang-kweon is skeptical when he hears that his homeland is taking steps to get rid of its nuclear weapons.

Born in North Korea in 1961, he escaped from a communist logging camp in his early 30s, lived in Uzbekistan, and sought asylum in the United States before moving to Seoul in 2005. He said North Korea’s nuclear weapons are its only bargaining chip, and the country can’t survive without them.

"What they are doing now is nothing but a show. They will never give up their nuclear programs — they simply can’t, at least for as long as Kim Jong Il lives," said Han, now chairman of the Association of North Korean Defector Organizations, which represents 28 defector groups in South Korea.

Han and other defectors spoke with Stars and Stripes last week as North Korea prepared to blow up part of its main nuclear reactor, ostensibly to show the world it plans to stop making nuclear weapons.

North Korea demolished part of its Yongbyon reactor June 27, a day after the Bush administration said it would take the country off the U.S. terrorism and sanctions lists.

Despite the changes, two defectors said it’s unlikely that North Korea will willingly give up its nuclear programs as long as Kim Jong Il is in power.

"The nuclear card is the only one they have," said Son Jung-hun, secretary-general for the group. North Korea spent all its power developing nuclear weapons; giving up those weapons would be giving up its identity, he said.

Both said that despite widespread famine and poverty, North Koreans can’t overthrow their government because the country has no free press and no way for dissenters to organize.

And both said the U.S. military presence in South Korea is deterring the North from attacking.

"The normal North Korean people are very certain they can attack and invade the South, and win the war. But they know they should not because of the presence of U.S. forces," Han said.

Han said South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, which emphasized cooperation with the North, was a "total failure" because it gave the communist nation time to develop its nuclear programs while millions starved. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reversed the 10-year policy when he took office earlier this year.

Han said there will be a violent struggle for control of North Korea upon the death of Kim, now 67, and the internal conflict will end only with international intervention. Han said North Korean defectors will be crucial in reunifying the countries.

"In a long term, I think it is us who hold the keys to resolve the situation," he said. "North Korean defectors have experienced democracy and communism and can walk forward to help both South and North better adjust to the changes."

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