WASHINGTON (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is unlikely to bow to pressure to surrender his nuclear capability because he believes it is vital for "regime survival," the U.S. commander in South Korea said on Tuesday.
The comments by General Walter Sharp at a U.S. Senate hearing came as a South Korean nuclear envoy visits Washington this week to discuss the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang, and ahead of a trip by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Seoul.
North Korea has said it wants to return to six-party nuclear talks, but Seoul and Washington have questioned its sincerity -- pointing to revelations in November about major advances in Pyongyang's uranium enrichment program.
North Korea has tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009 and conducted long-range missile tests three times -- in 1998, 2006 and 2009.
Senator John McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned whether there was any scenario under which Kim would give up his nuclear weapons capability.
"To answer your question directly: No, I do not see that he will give up his nuclear capability," Sharp said.
He prefaced his remarks by saying: "North Korea, I think, has clearly said that they are developing this nuclear capability. I think it is clear that Kim Jong-il believes he has to have it for regime survival."
A South Korean nuclear envoy is visiting Washington this week to meet top officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy. Clinton travels to Seoul on Saturday and Sunday.
Tensions with North Korea rose to their highest since the 1950-53 Korean War after last year's sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of a South Korean island in the sea off the peninsula's west coast.
Sharp renewed U.S. warnings that the North may stage more attacks, but again stressed that the United States and South Korea would be prepared to respond if necessary. He said such strikes would be proportionate and only in self-defense.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart)