North Korea threatened Tuesday to renew its nuclear weapons program. Pyongyang says that the United States has reneged on its promise to remove North Korea from the state sponsors of terrorism list, while Washington responded that it wants independent verification of the country's nuclear disarmament. North Korea also announced this week that it "suspended disabling" its nuclear facilities on Aug. 14.
The announcement escalates tensions and threatens to throw the six-party disarmament talks with North Korea and its neighbors into disarray. It comes just two months after the government demolished the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear facility, hidden in a mountain range 60 miles north of the capital, before a crowd of international journalists.
That move was meant to dramatically demonstrate Pyongyang's commitment to the talks, which has now been called into question.
The June demolition of the cooling tower was accompanied by the release of details about North Korea's plutonium program, and the US rewarded North Korea for that with promises to remove the country from the state sponsors of terrorism list and drop some trade sanctions, reports The Washington Post.
Since then, the US has been slow to follow through. It says it will not drop North Korea from the list until it allows outside experts into its facilities to catalogue the scope of its nuclear activities and verify the disarmament progress.
Pyongyang has reacted to that demand with rage and says that extra inspections would be a violation of its sovereignty, reports The Guardian. When an Aug. 11 deadline for altering the list passed, Pyongyang put its foot down.
In a statement carried by the Korea Central News Agency, the ministry said the US was insisting on extra inspections that would infringe upon its sovereignty.
"The US is gravely mistaken if it thinks it can make a house search in the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] as it pleases just as it did in Iraq," said the statement. "We have decided to immediately suspend disabling our nuclear facilities."
The Bush administration reacted with disappointment on Wednesday. But a number of government officials reaffirmed US commitment to keeping North Korea on the list until its progress in dismantling the nuclear site could be independently verified, reports Agence France-Presse.
"The United States will not take North Korea off the state sponsor of terrorism list until we have a protocol in place to verify the dismantling and accounting for Korea's nuclear program," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
The State Department said Pyongyang's decision to stop disabling its key Yongbyon nuclear complex was of "great concern" and "a step backward" in six-country diplomatic efforts aimed at denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
"It certainly is in violation of its commitments to the six-party framework, certainly in violation of the principle of action-for-action," department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters.
The Washington Post reports that the six-party talks have been plagued with problems and criticisms from the start, raising the possibility that the latest flare-up may just be par for the course.
That deal, though, has had a number of major hiccups, including a six-month delay in the North's release of the report on its nuclear program. US negotiators, despite criticism from some conservatives in Washington, found ways to keep it from collapsing.
The negotiators did not require the North to make a detailed public accounting of its suspected uranium-enrichment program or suspected sales of nuclear technology to foreign countries, including Syria. Nor did the United States require the North to specify how many nuclear weapons it has made.
Others say that the announcement may just be an attempt by North Korea to gain more leverage at the bargaining table. It is also a way for Pyongyang to register its unhappiness with recent joint military exercises by Washington and Seoul, according to Koh Yu-Hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at South Korea's Dongguk University, reports Reuters.
"This sudden move was not entirely unexpectable, as the US has irked North Korea by delaying the removal of North Korea from the list of terrorism-sponsoring states and South Korea and the US did the joint military drill, which was seen as a threat to the North. Those steps angered North Korea and it seems to have come to think that they still need nuclear weapons.
"I do not believe that North Korea whole-heartedly said they will go back to the starting point in terms of denuclearization process. I see it as another card at the negotiation table to urge the US to remove it from the terrorism blacklist as soon as possible."
Still, it remains to be seen whether this latest problem is just another bump in the diplomatic process or a setback that more seriously damages relations.
The upcoming US presidential election may play a role in this as well, reports the BBC, saying, "with only months to go until a new team takes office in Washington, Pyongyang may be looking to the next administration for a better deal."