Mr. Bush, heed the lesson of North Korean nukes

January 07, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Hearing Colin Powell explain why the United States is preparing for war with Iraq and not with North Korea, you might wonder if George W. Bush is still president.

The stern threats he issued last year toward the "axis of evil" - Iraq, Iran and North Korea - have been replaced with assurances that we wouldn't dream of resorting to the use of force to deal with this matter.

"Nobody's going to attack North Korea," insisted Mr. Powell Dec. 29. "Why would we want to attack North Korea?" Referring to a North Korean nuclear facility, the secretary of state noted that "the Clinton administration did have a declaratory policy that if anything else happened at Yongbyon, they would attack it." But, he stressed, "we don't have that policy."

So how does the administration plan to deal with North Korea's decision to accelerate its nuclear weapons program? "I think diplomatic efforts are the appropriate tool to use right now," Mr. Powell said. Take that, evildoers!

It's not entirely fair to accuse the president of hypocrisy in taking different approaches to North Korea and Iraq. There are good reasons to take different approaches, starting with the government in Pyongyang has nukes already. The administration sees how that limits our options. What it doesn't see is how our experience with a nuclear North Korea weakens the case for attacking Iraq.

There were no screaming headlines when the North Koreans developed the most dangerous weapon known to man. In fact, it has only recently begun to register with the American people. Our intelligence agencies haven't said exactly when it happened. But at some point, they concluded that the nuclear club had acquired a new and uninvited member.

Those who want to attack Iraq claim that Saddam Hussein would behave much more aggressively if he had nukes. But the only striking thing about the North Koreans' behavior since they got the bomb is that there has been nothing striking.

They've been strident, demanding and unpredictable, which is what they were before. And they've stopped short of doing anything that would precipitate a war they know they can't win, which is also what they did before.

Their decision to expel foreign inspectors and reopen a plutonium processing plant fits the pattern. The Bush administration opposes these steps, which will allow Pyongyang to start producing bombs within six months or so, but isn't willing to come to blows over them. Why not? Partly because North Korea has always had the capacity to inflict devastating damage on South Korea. And the possibility that they could resort to radioactive retaliation induces even more caution in Washington.

"I'm not saying we don't have military options," an unidentified senior Bush adviser told The New York Times. "I'm just saying we don't have good ones."

Barring war, the North Koreans stand to gain no matter what. Maybe they can sell us the same horse we purchased in 1994, getting us to provide aid and other concessions if they agree to abandon their nuclear programs. Or maybe we'll balk and they'll proceed to become a full-fledged nuclear power, and they'll no longer have to worry that we'll come after them once Mr. Hussein is history.

There's good reason to think they see their nukes as defensive weapons, not offensive ones, which is precisely how we see our own. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il doesn't have to be reminded that the Clinton administration seriously considered a pre-emptive attack in 1994.

After we confronted them about their secret nuclear program, a North Korean official reportedly said, "Your president called us a member of the axis of evil. ... Your troops are deployed on the Korean peninsula . ... Of course we have a nuclear program." But Pyongyang also said it would "resolve all U.S. security concerns" in exchange for a nonaggression treaty.

If North Korea wants the bomb for defensive security, why does the Bush administration assume that Iraq wants it for aggression? Over the last half-century, nuclear weapons have turned out to be ideal for deterring attack, for preserving the status quo. But they've proved useless as a tool to redraw international boundaries or prey on other countries.

The most plausible reason Mr. Hussein wants the bomb is that his enemies - the United States, Israel and Iran - have them or are trying to get them. A nuclear arsenal would discourage outsiders from trying to bring about "regime change" in Baghdad. But that's about all it would do.

Not long ago, we thought of going to war to prevent North Korea from getting nuclear weapons. Now that North Korea has them, we've suddenly discovered they pose no particular danger. That tells us something important about Iraq, but the administration isn't listening.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays in The Sun.

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