Once again, North Korea is playing a game of nuclear brinkmanship. In an eerie throwback to 1994, when a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula pushed the United States and North Korea to the brink of war, Pyongyang has removed seals and disabled monitoring cameras at nuclear facilities that had been mothballed under the Agreed Framework with the U.S. Reports from South Korea say North Korean technicians are already working to repair a frozen reactor.

Clearly, all of this is in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But in a strange twist of logic, the North Koreans are piling all the blame on the U.S. “It is America that has driven us to lift the nuclear freeze,” said the Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ Party. “If America wants to resolve the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula, it should sign a treaty of nonaggression with us.”

Pyongyang is notorious for that kind of perverted rhetoric. It seems hooked, so to speak, on off-key diplomacy that makes a mockery of international treaties and agreements. Whether or not Pyongyang really means what it says, it is difficult, to say the least, to understand why it is trying to reactivate mothballed nuclear facilities in the face of international condemnation.

The question now is how the international community, particularly Japan, South Korea and the U.S., should deal with North Korea’s renewed nuclear brinkmanship. There are two broad options. One is to continue the “sunshine” policy of engagement that South Korean President-elect Roh Moo Hyun inherited from outgoing President Kim Dae Jung and has pledged to pursue. The other option is to take a hardline policy of the kind being pursued by U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration. The three allies, however, are not necessarily united on this question.

It appears that North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is trying to take advantage of differences among Tokyo, Seoul and Washington. It is, therefore, important that the three nations reaffirm their solidarity — which they have maintained since the previous administration of President Bill Clinton — and stand firm against any North Korean provocations. On that basis, they should pursue “quiet diplomacy” toward the peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue.

In this regard, hardline statements by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are worrying. He has warned that America is “capable of fighting two major regional conflicts,” denying speculation that America would have its hands full waging a war with Iraq. On the face of it, these utterances, suggesting as they do the possibility of military action against North Korea, seem to contradict President Bush’s declared intention of seeking a diplomatic solution.

It remains to be seen whether North Korea will actually restart an experimental reactor in Yongbyong and extract weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel. If it does, however, the International Atomic Energy Agency will likely pass a resolution denouncing Pyongyang. It is also likely that the U.N. Security Council will decide to take forceful steps to deal with the situation. Depending on how the North reacts, a nuclear crisis may flare up again.

However, if Pyongyang is hoping for something like a repetition of 1994, it is wrong. At that time, the crisis was resolved at the eleventh hour at a meeting between President Clinton and President Kim Il Sung. The two leaders signed the Agreed Framework, which promised North Korea two light-water reactors plus heavy oil in exchange for a halt to its nuclear weapons program. Brinkmanship paid off. It should not be allowed to succeed this time around.

The current crisis started when North Korea admitted, for reasons that have never been fully explained, that it was running a covert program for uranium enrichment — a clear violation of the 1994 accord that has led to the cancellation of heavy-oil shipments. Pyongyang’s explanation for unsealing the Yongbyong reactor — that it needs to produce electricity to cover the energy shortage — just won’t fly. The reactor has a meager capacity of only 5 megawatts. Moreover, no power cables are installed there yet.

It may be that North Korea is expecting South Korea’s next president to bring the U.S. back to the bargaining table. But Pyongyang should not, and cannot, expect to get any “concessions” for its violation of nuclear-related agreements. Japan, South Korea and the U.S., in particular, should stay the course, keeping a united diplomatic front, even if Pyongyang escalates its nuclear blackmail. The message is loud and clear: Brinkmanship does not work.

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