Point of the axis

North Korea openly admits it has weapons of mass destruction. But that military might ensures it won't meet the same fate as fellow 'axis of evil' member Iraq.

October 26, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

At one end of the axis of evil is a country that had no nuclear weapons - nor apparently any other weapons of mass destruction. It gets invaded. At the other end is a country that brags that it is building nuclear weapons. It gets an assurance that there are no plans to invade.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

The first country is, of course, Iraq. The second is North Korea.

Last year, North Korea announced it was restarting nuclear reactors that could make weapons material. It kicked out United Nations inspectors. Since then, it has periodically announced it was closer to making the weapons while developing and testing delivery systems. Last week, while President Bush was in South Korea, North Korea test-fired a missile that landed in the sea between the Korean peninsula and Japan.

"In some ways, [Iraq and North Korea] are mirror images," says Steven David, an international security expert in the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University. "Iraq kept saying, `No, we don't have the weapons,' and the U.S. kept saying, `Yes, you do.' North Korea keeps saying, `We have the weapons,' and we keep saying, `No, you don't.' It's kind of strange."

Why doesn't North Korea get the Iraq treatment? It seems to be asking for it. The answer is simple: It would be much tougher to march on Pyongyang than it was to take Baghdad.

Few doubt that if it came to war, North Korea, even with its army of 1 million, would fall. But, unlike Iraq, North Korea has the capability of inflicting hundreds of thousands of casualties on its neighbors, as well as on the 38,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

"The key point is that they could devastate Seoul [South Korea's capital] in a matter of hours," says Warren Cohen, a historian of diplomacy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "And they have the capability, probably, of reaching Tokyo. And they might have a nuclear deterrent. So if you wanted to hit one part of the axis of evil, the least dangerous part was Iraq. It had a Third World army and maybe a nuclear program, maybe not."

Bruce Cumings, a historian of East Asia at the University of Chicago, says he thinks Japan would be the main target of a North Korean strike. "If we press North Korea to the wall and they think they are going down, they are going to go down fighting. They will wreak havoc, primarily in Japan, because they don't want to kill a lot of South Koreans," says Cumings.

A surgical strike against North Korea's nuclear program - such as the one Israel pulled off against an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 - seems impossible because the location of its weapons facilities is unknown.

Cohen says he understands why many in the Bush administration would like to use force against North Korea. "But unfortunately, there are not any coercive methods that will work," he says. "Otherwise, it's a great idea. These are not nice people. This is a regime that you would like to see overthrown."

So, with the military option removed, the dilemma is this: Does America negotiate with the North Koreans to try to get the nuclear program stopped, or refuse to negotiate with those who violate international law?

Most agree that the United States has no choice but to talk.

"Are the North Koreans blackmailing us?" asks Cohen. "Yes. But there are worse things that can happen, as we all know."

Says Cumings: "The Bush administration is between a very serious rock and a very hard place. North Korea is exploiting that, and it's winning."

David agrees. "It is all well and good to say that they are not trustworthy and are likely to break any agreement, all of which I agree with. But then what? When you don't have the military option, imperfect political assurances on security are better than nothing at all," he says.

The origin of the current crisis goes back a decade when the International Atomic Energy Agency - the U.N. group that polices nuclear proliferation - found that North Korea was making fuel for a bomb at nuclear reactors. At the time, many thought this crisis could lead to another war on the Korean peninsula.

After intense negotiations with the Clinton administration, an agreement was hammered out. North Korea agreed to shut down the reactors and allow U.N. inspection in return for shipments of fuel oil and assistance with safe nuclear reactors from the United States and moves toward normalizing relations.

`Period of re-evaluation'

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