More Korean Tricks

NORTH Korea has played an extremely clever game of nuclear blackmail with the rest of the world for several years -- extracting billions of dollars and getting international recognition for doing what they agreed to do and should have done all along.

Now, having signed a $4 billion nuclear deal last October that was to end all questions, they are up to their old tricks again.

Last fall North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program -- in exchange for light-water nuclear reactors financed by the United States, Japan, and South Korea. The White House was heavily criticized for extravagance. But it argued the alternatives were worse. Maybe, maybe not.

Now the North wants to break what US envoy Robert Gallucci says was an airtight deal -- by insisting the nuclear reactors be built by some country other than South Korea. It feels skittish about all those South Koreans crossing the border with state-of-the-art equipment. Apparently Ambassador Gallucci did not get the North to sign on the dotted line about South Korea as supplier. Why not? In any event, it has become a loophole the North is exploiting on the eve of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty meeting on April 12. (Mr. Gallucci's deal was sealed just prior to the November elections).

The administration must try to hold firm on the deal it struck -- if for no other reason than to avoid a ''North Korean precedent'' for other states willing to barter for NPT membership.

North Korea suspended its NPT membership two years ago when traces of plutonium were found during routine UN inspections. Prior to that North Koreans insisted they did not have nuclear weapons-grade material -- though they had sunk billions over 10 years into reprocessing plants that produce the stuff.

The CIA estimates North Korea may have several nuclear devices, and could make more if it processes spent fuel rods.

Some experts insist North Korea is really just a paranoid nation that wants to join the international community. They note North Korea's potential destructiveness on the Pacific Rim and counsel steady patience.

Others say patience simply offers more time to develop weapons.

The White House warns that a breach of the agreement will mean no economic benefits. But dictatorships don't always make a healthy consumer economy their first priority.

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