On Native Ground
NORTH KOREA A GREATER THREAT THAN IRAQ
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- The inconsistencies in President Bush's "war on terror" grow by the day, with one of the biggest being the difference in treatment between two members of the much-vaunted "axis of evil," Iraq and North Korea.
While the Bush administration is patiently waiting its chance to blast Saddam Hussein into oblivion, it is handling North Korea with the utmost of care.
This may have something to do with a fact that the Bush team would rather not discuss: Iraq has apparently has no weapons of mass destruction and has apparently no ability to help out other nations in developing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons while North Korea actually has these weapons and is busy selling the technology to any nation who has the cash to buy it.
The recent interception of a boatload of North Korean-made Scud missiles bound for Yemen, coupled with North Korea's announcement that it wants to reactivate a dormant nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, clearly shows which country poses the bigger threat to world peace.
As a nation that lives under the world's last hard-core communist dictatorship, North Korea is broke, starving and isolated. The only thing that keeps it from total irrelevance is the nuclear card.
Egypt, Iran, Syria, Libya and Pakistan have all bought about $1 billion worth of missile technology from the North Koreans. Pakistan, our supposed ally in the "war on terror," has reportedly helped the North Koreans' secret efforts to develop nuclear missiles.
According to the CIA, North Korea has enough plutonium on hand for two or three nuclear warheads. It is said to also have 5,000 tons of chemical weapons and has been working on biological weapons for decades.
Would the North Koreans be reckless enough to use any of these weapons? This statement from a military analyst close to Kim Jong-il's regime that appeared in the Dec. 12 edition of The Guardian might get your attention.
"We are a small and poor nation up against the sole superpower," Kim Myong-choi told the British newspaper, "so the only way to bring the United States to the negotiation table is to be prepared for suicidal action."
If anyone in Saddam Hussein's circle made a statement like that, the bombs would be falling on Baghdad like raindrops. But no one in Iraq is talking like that.
Contrary to the Bush administration's rhetoric, Iraq hasn't been planning to attack its neighbors, especially since its defeat in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Between economic sanctions and periodic attacks, the U.S. has effectively contained Iraq for more than a decade. Rather than a grave threat to world peace, Iraq looks to be a country that the U.S. can bully to its advantage.
The U.S. can't bully North Korea in the same way. Ironically, the exaggerated picture of Iraq as a rogue state prepared to blackmail the world with weapons of mass destruction is a very real description of where North Korea stands now.
Will North Korea choose to become what The Guardian called "a state-sized suicide bomber?" It may be more of a ploy to get the U.S. to take it seriously than a actual threat. But Kim Jong-il's forces don't need nuclear weapons to cause havoc on the Korean peninsula or nearby Japan.
The 37,000 U.S. troops stationed in the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea are the prime targets for the 500 or so Scuds that North Korea has operational, as well as its artillery batteries. Just 40 miles from the DMZ is Seoul. The South Korean capital was destroyed in the 1950-53 Korean War, and it could be leveled again. And North Korea's long-range version of the Scud, the Nodong, is capable of hitting targets in Japan.
Clearly, North Korea is more dangerous than Iraq and the swaggering gunslinger talk that has dominated the Bush administration's Iraq strategy won't work against North Korea. This is where the inconsistencies and hypocrisies are laid bare for all to see. The U.S. can bully Iraq because it is not a threat, but it has to use diplomacy in dealing with North Korea because it is a threat.
Whether he cares to admit it or not, President Bush is in a real quandary. The war he seems to want in Iraq may end up leaving the U.S. unprepared to deal with a far graver situation in North Korea. And this growing crisis may ultimately be traced back to President Bush's biggest mistake - his administration's decision to end dialogue with North Korea.
One would hate to think that a nuclear showdown may happen because the Bush administration wanted to keep North Korea as an enemy to help justify its expensive and unworkable missile defense initiative. But that appears to be what happened. North Korea, for the most part, was apparently abiding by the 1994 agreement until President Bush took office. When the Bush team pulled the plug on the diplomatic initiatives started during the Clinton administration, North Korea apparently decided to resume work on its nuclear program. Getting included in the "axis of evil" didn't help matters either.
While there are some in the Bush administration that support some sort of "surgical" strike against North Korea's nuclear program, the U.S. will likely have to continue with the strategy that has kept both Iraq and North Korea's weapons programs in check - economic sanctions and inspections.
Some say that Kim Jong-il would be willing to trade North Korea's nuclear program for more economic aid. That's unlikely to happen unless the U.S. works more closely with China, North Korea's main patron, to put pressure on Pyongyang. In the meantime, the U.S. appears to have no intention of increasing food shipments to North Korea, which is on the brink of famine.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been monitoring the Yongbyon plant since the start of the 1994 agreement, when it was shut down in exchange for regular shipments of fuel oil and technical assistance to build two light-water nuclear reactors. The Yongbyon plant is still closed, but work on the two new reactors is way behind schedule and the fuel oil shipments were stopped in October after North Korea admitted secretly working on an uranium enrichment program.
Sitting at Yongbyon are 8,000 spent fuel rods that contain enough plutonium to build more than 30 nuclear warheads. If the North Koreans follow through on their threat to boot out the IAEA monitors and reopen Yongbyon, it will take about a year to get out the fuel rods. A working reprocessing plant to separate the plutonium from the nuclear waste appears to be the main obstacle separating North Korea from large-scale weapons production.
Clearly, the Bush administration has few options in dealing with North Korea other than diplomatic and economic pressure. But maybe the best outcome of the current troubles might be that President Bush may learn that one of Winston Churchill's great aphorisms still holds true: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).