What's Behind North Korea's Nuclear Power Play

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AFP / Getty

The Yongbyon-1 nuclear power plant in North Korea

Negotiating styles can tell you a lot about the party you're sitting across from. Some people bang the table. Some get up and walk out. Some are passive-aggressive, staying at the table but never letting things move forward.

Not the North Koreans. When they're angry, they let you know about it in a very big way — as they did this week by reneging on a deal struck with five other nations to rid themselves of their nuclear weapons and their ability to make them.

Make no mistake: Pyongyang is pissed. In return for North Korea dismantling its nuclear program, the U.S. and its negotiating partners (South Korea, Japan, China and Russia) agreed to provide an array of diplomatic and economic benefits, including a proviso that North Korea be removed from Washington's list of state sponsors of terror. In late June, after the North finally forked over a long-delayed inventory of its nuclear materiel and bomb-making equipment, the U.S. indicated that it would reciprocate after a 45-day review. Those 45 days have come and gone, and still the North remains on the list.

The North is saying, in effect, what gives? And the fact is, they have a point, as even some U.S. State Department officials concede privately. U.S. President George W. Bush publicly held out the prospect of terror delisting as part of an "action for action" principle, the clear implication being that when Pyongyang turned over its declaration, delisting would follow. It hasn't, so yesterday, the North told inspectors for the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to remove its seals from the regime's reactor at Yongbyon — which provided the nuclear fuel with which the North has built its small arsenal of nukes. Inspectors have been barred from Yongbyon, and the regime told the IAEA that within a week it would restart the reactor, rendering all the diplomatic progress made by the six-party talks moot. "What they've done is trouble," Gregory L. Schulte, the U.S. representative to the IAEA, told reporters.

Is it trouble that could have been avoided? Bush Administration officials say they have not delisted Pyongyang because the regime has objected to Washington's proposed verification regime, meaning the means and methods the outside world would use to make sure the North was abiding by the nuclear agreement. Washington wants the inspectors to have as much freedom as possible, able to go pretty much wherever they want whenever they want. To a secretive, paranoid regime like the North's, that's unacceptable. The question is whether the Administration should have gone ahead and removed Pyongyang from the list and then plunged into the verification stage.

Why was getting taken off the list so important to the North? First, simply, it was a matter of face, of reducing its pariah-state image — a tangible symbol of being welcomed back into the global community. Second, removal held out at least the prospect, down the road, of some economic benefits. A spot on Washington's terror list scares off the world's multilateral lending institutions — including the IMF, World Bank and Asia Development Bank — from even considering aid programs given that the U.S. is their largest contributor.

Few diplomats doubt that negotiations over verification will be nettlesome. For months South Korea's envoys have been warning that this next step could be a deal killer. That's why the reaction to Pyongyang's latest temper tantrum has been measured. The nuclear program is the North's only real source of leverage with the outside world, and so they're using it again. Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Bush's National Security Council, said the North's actions were "very disappointing" and urged Pyongyang to "reconsider these steps."

The North's latest gambit comes just weeks after reports that "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke, so it's unclear who is making decisions in Pyongyang. Diplomatic sources have told TIME that while Kim did appear to be ill, he was not completely incapacitated. Aides to South Korean legislators say their bosses were told at a recent intelligence briefing to expect Kim to return to power. At any rate, there is little to no policy difference between the upper echelons of the regime and the North Korean military on the nuclear issue. In other words, whether Kim decided to restart Yongbyon or not, the decision itself was hardly out of character. "This is what they do," said a South Korean official. And it's not a matter of getting used to it, he added wearily, "because we are used to it."

(Click here for photos of Kim Jong Il.)