Time to play hardball

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Time to play hardball

By calling a halt to the disabling process at the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, North Korea has forced U.S. President George W. Bush to choose between two alternatives: Either he takes North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, achieving the diplomatic feat of disabling North Korea’s nuclear facilities, or he allows the negotiations, which have taken nearly two years to get to this point, back to square one.

This is typical Pyongyang brinkmanship, but the United States is partly to blame, having, to some extent, brought this upon itself.

Before and after reaching the Feb. 13 agreement in 2007, the United States repeatedly made concessions to North Korea. Washington didn’t even mention the words “nuclear weapons.” It used to have a hard-line stance on the North’s uranium enrichment program and proliferation of weapons to Syria but these issues have been all but forgotten now.

The issue of taking North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism is the same. The Oct. 13, 2007, agreement states that the United States will remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism if Pyongyang makes a complete and accurate declaration of all its nuclear programs. That doesn’t mention verification. It is, however, international norm that all declarations are followed by verification. Otherwise, there is no need for declaration.

It is North Korea’s basic negotiation strategy to agree on vague terms first and then interpret the agreement in different ways later and make unreasonable demands. The United States must be well aware of this tactic, but barreled ahead anyway with the agreement and is now paying the price. Washington was tied down in the Iraq war and with the Republican Party’s defeat in the 2006 midterm elections, so the Bush administration was obsessed with making diplomatic progress on the North Korea issue.

The United States has said that it will respond with stern measures to Pyongyang’s declaration. It is impossible to remove a country from the list of state sponsors of terrorism without verification that is convincing to international society and the United States.

We hope that Bush will maintain this stern stance until the end of his term. In this regard, it is positive that his administration recently took some measures against North Korea, such as freezing its assets.

With only a few months left to the current administration, full-scale negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program will inevitably be left to the next U.S. administration. North Korea must be well aware of this. This must have been calculated in its declaration to halt disablement of its nuclear facilities. The Bush administration therefore needs to make no more concessions while it continues to negotiate with North Korea.

North Korea is looking ahead to when the U.S. administration changes. In a typical Pyongyang strategy, it is creating a crisis in order to gain concessions from a new administration. It must learn that this strategy will no longer work.

Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama are likely to capitulate to North Korea’s threats. Pyongyang should understand that Obama in particular might take an even sterner stance than pundits expect in order to allay worries over his inexperience in international politics. It also should know that the longer negotiations continue, the more vulnerable it is and tougher Washington and its allies can get.

There is only one thing that can be done. North Korea should prove that it is determined to abandon its nuclear programs by accepting the verification process, which has been negotiated and agreed upon by multiple international parties, and abiding by it.
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