[EDITORIALS]A step closer to the brink

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[EDITORIALS]A step closer to the brink

North Korea has removed the seals from its nuclear fuel rod storage site a day after breaking other seals and disabling surveillance cameras at the Yeongbyeon nuclear reactor site. If the North goes a step further to start reprocessing the spent nuclear fuel, it would signal the beginning of a truly dangerous situation.

The North's actions have blatantly contradicted its justification for unfreezing its nuclear program; it had said the step was necessary to generate electrical power after the United States suspended the shipment of fuel oil for its power plants. Reprocessing of nuclear fuel can lead to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. If the North reprocesses the 8,000 nuclear fuel rods it has, it could make three to six nuclear weapons. The North is about to drop its last fig leaf, the argument that the United States is imagining things when it claims that the North has continued its nuclear program. It appears more likely that it had nuclear ambitions all along.

The step also goes further than just a renunciation of the 1994 Agreed Framework it signed with the United States and a break with its multilateral commitments under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The United Nations Security Council could now move to seek international sanctions against the North. Because even Russia and China, Pyeongyang's traditional allies, oppose the North's nuclear program, it faces further isolation.

We do not know if the North's attempts to get security assurances from the United States will push it to the next step of actually reprocessing the nuclear fuel, and Washington does not seem to want to budge. South Korea is in the most serious situation of all, and it is President-elect Roh Moo-hyun specifically who is on the hot seat. Mr. Roh, who pledged to continue President Kim Dae-jung's policy of engagement with the North, is caught between the pressure being exerted by both Washington and Pyeongyang. The North should understand that Mr. Roh is relatively sympathetic to its plight and give him the opportunity to mediate between itself and Washington once he takes office. The future of inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation depends on it.

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