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Once again, U.S. officials are muttering about the possibility of international sanctions against North Korea if that country resumes operation of a nuclear reactor that can produce weapons-grade plutonium.

The sudden return to potential confrontation comes as a surprise since the two countries supposedly had reached a 1994 deal in which North Korea would scrap its facilities capable of being used to build a nuclear arsenal.In return, North Korea was to receive foreign assistance in building other types of N-reactors that would not be capable of producing plutonium, and the government in Pyongyang ultimately would allow international inspections.

But North Korea broke off talks in Berlin this past week, declaring that April 21 was an unalterable deadline and since no agreement had been reached, it could start up its plutonium-producing N-reactor. Washington had considered April 21 as merely a "target," not a deadline.

Behind the seemingly minor dispute over semantics is a deeper split over the role of South Korea in North Korea's switch to less dangerous reactors. South Korea had pledged to pay half the $4.5 billion construction cost and wanted South Korean-type reactors used so it could get public credit for its role. South Korea also wanted to be listed as prime contractor for the 10-year project.

North Korea objects vehemently to any such prestigious role for its southern enemy and has rejected a U.S. compromise. The North Koreans want the United States to be prime contractor with no role for South Korea at all, except maybe as a cash cow to be milked at will.

All of this seems like a less-than-valid reason for reviving a dangerous nuclear confrontation, but the North Koreans apparently are utterly rigid. The whole treaty is headed back to square one. As this page pointed out when the original agreement was first announced last year, the treaty is weak and full of loopholes. Just how weak is now becoming apparent.

If nothing else, the breakdown of the talks over the role of South Korea also demonstrates that any talk of reunification between North and South Korea is mere fantasy. Any merger apparently would have to be totally on the terms of the North Korean dictatorship and that would be unacceptable to a free South Korea and to the United States.