North Korea plays the mule

The United States should stick to its nuclear hardball policy.

Once again, North Korea has proven it only knows how to play the mule. While the feisty nation with the questionable formal name of the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” returned for a fourth round of six-nation talks with the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, it took only one day to breach the agreement reached after seven days of negotiations.

When this round of talks began, North Korea insisted it would only dismantle its nuclear weapons program – currently estimated to be capable of producing at least six atomic weapons – if the United States would allow it to build a light-water nuclear reactor for peaceful energy purposes. In exchange, it would allow strict controls and inspections on the facility.

While this seems reasonable, the United States stubbornly, but rightfully, held out on this issue, maintaining that a previous agreement for such reactors was abandoned when North Korea admitted it had been secretly enriching uranium on the side. The other nations were less opposed to the idea, but agreed to go back to the table.

It paid off when the group issued a statement on Monday wherein North Korea agreed to dismantle all its nuclear operations, including weapons, and return to compliance with the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. The statement emphasized that North Korea had stated its right to peaceful atomic technology and that the light-water reactor would be discussed “at an appropriate time.” The statement also included South Korea’s offer of free energy, economic and diplomatic aid from all the parties involved, and a fifth round of talks scheduled for November. This agreement seemed a good compromise for all parties.

Unfortunately, North Korea reneged Tuesday and said it would begin dismantling its weapons program only if the United States guaranteed a light-water reactor first. So far, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as Russian and Japanese officials, have rejected the demand and have called for North Korea to return to the original agreement.

Because the United States has garnered international support for this particular game of hardball, it’s time to stick with it. If five of the six parties involved stand firm in the original agreement, hopefully they can force North Korea to disarm before instituting a peaceful nuclear energy program.