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Striking Iraq, Stroking North Korea

Why can't President Bush show the same restraint toward Baghdad that he's shown to the far-more-dangerous Pyongyang?

November 24, 2002|Jay Taylor | Jay Taylor is an associate in research at the John Fairbank Center for East Asian Research at Harvard University and a former deputy assistant secretary of State for intelligence and research in the Reagan administration.

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Iraq crisis will probably be resolved one way or another over the next few months. Either U.S. military action or simply its threat will again prove effective. This is because Iraq has no significant deterrent to our use of force. In fact, the Iraq threat, although certainly serious, is comparatively small. So why, then, is the full force of our national invective being aimed at Baghdad, particularly when the world holds a much greater threat to the United States and its allies: North Korea?

In contrast to his demands for dealing quickly and forcefully with Iraq, President Bush seemed positively calm last month when discussing the disturbing news that North Korea has been -- and continues -- working on a uranium enrichment program. "We felt like they had given their word they weren't going to do this," the president mildly complained. He then went ahead and approved the delivery of a U.S. shipment of heavy fuel oil to North Korea under a 1994 agreement, which Pyongyang asserted was "nullified" or "hanging by a thread."

North Korea attempted to justify its actions with the explanation that its designation by the U.S. as part of an "axis of evil" was tantamount to a declaration of war, and that therefore North Korea had every right to pursue the development of any powerful weapon it needed to defend itself. After Bush talked over the matter with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea, the three countries, in cautious diplomatic language, warned North Korea that its "relations with the international community" hinged on the prompt dismantlement of its clandestine nuclear weapons program. Further oil shipments have been halted.

Few in the United States or elsewhere have objected to the president's coolheaded and multilateral approach to Pyongyang's provocation. Americans, however, may be excused if they wonder whether Iraq or North Korea is the bigger threat and which is the best target for a preemptive American military strike.

North Korea has a far greater capability of inflicting death and destruction on the U.S. and its allies than Iraq. Pyongyang may already have one or more plutonium-based nuclear weapons and now brazenly admits to a program that, if successful, could lead to the production of six high-yield enriched uranium bombs a year. At the same time, intelligence agencies here and abroad agree that Iraq has no nuclear weapons and is at best four years away from obtaining them.

North Korea, meanwhile, is the world's largest exporter of missile technology. According to the latest CIA National Threat Estimate, Pyongyang will by 2015 "most likely" possess missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons onto American cities. The same report judges Iraq as having only the "possibility" of building a similar threat in that time, and that would only be if international sanctions on Baghdad were lifted. North Korea also has an advanced program of chemical and biological weapons development and unlike Iraq did not have international inspectors detecting and destroying its stockpiles during the 1990s.

In explaining the differences between Iraq and North Korea, President Bush has emphasized Hussein's oppression of his people, implying it is worse than that of North Korea. But in comparing the terrible things the two regimes have done to their respective subjects, the brutal totalitarianism of North Korea, by almost any measure, is considerably worse than the brutal dictatorship of Hussein.

In suppressing a Kurdish uprising during the 1980s, the Iraqi government killed some 5,000 civilians with poison gas. If there had been a similar uprising in North Korea -- a more closed society than Iraq -- the world would very likely never have heard of its bloody suppression. We do know from international aid workers, however, that as a result of disastrous economic policies, up to 2 million rural North Koreans have died of starvation, malnutrition and related diseases in recent years.

If a war on Iraq is to be considered part of a war on terrorism, North Korea has proved itself a far greater terrorist threat. Its agents blew up a South Korean airliner carrying 115 people in 1987, carried out assassinations in South Korea, kidnapped Japanese citizens and tried to kill a South Korean leader traveling abroad. Moreover, the regime has dealt in narcotics and distributed counterfeit U.S. dollars.

A conservative conclusion is that North Korea is certainly no less "evil" than Iraq and no less hostile to America. But it is without question much more powerful than Iraq and thus poses a much greater threat to the United States. But up to now neither menace has been imminent and thus neither has warranted preemptive destruction.

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