While continuing the U.S. build-up in the Persian Gulf to confront Iraq, President Bush says North Korea's resumption of its nuclear weapons program is more of a diplomatic than a military problem. Critics reply that a nuclear-armed North Korea, a large weapons exporter to other parts of the world and possibly to terrorists, is a far greater danger than Iraq.
North Korea is clear and bellicose. It says it will develop nuclear weapons, and as evidence has ousted the international inspectors of its nuclear facilities. It also threatens to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The only way of stopping this, says North Korea, is to have direct negotiations with the United States.
No way, replies the Bush administration. That would be succumbing to nuclear blackmail. Before there are negotiations, insists the White House, North Korea will have to suspend its nuclear weapons program.
Critics note a certain inconsistency. The United States is preparing to attack Iraq, which is unlikely to have nuclear weapons, while by-passing North Korea, which probably does. But President Bush says Iraq might find a way to attack the United States, while White House aides confide Iraq is a much easier target than North Korea.
Joel Wit is a former U.S. State Department analyst of the two Koreas and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He says it is hard to know what the North Koreans have in mind, what they ultimately seek. "It is very clear that North Korea is moving toward building a much larger stockpile of nuclear weapons. What isn't so clear is whether that can be stopped through negotiations. There are a number of people who think North Korea is looking for negotiations and others who think there is nothing really that is going to stop them now."
North Korea is determined to become a nuclear power, says Alan Romberg, a senior associate of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. Isolated and impoverished, a relic of the Cold War, its leaders want to compensate with nuclear weapons. "Their basic goal, it seems to me, is survival. It means regime survival, survival of the system. And they think that the United States holds the key, that we are the only ones who really can and would put sufficient pressure on them to threaten their survival."
North Korea does not only pose a nuclear threat. Its million-man army, one of the world's largest, faces 700 thousand South Korean troops and 37,000 American across the border. North Korea has some 700 missiles capable of striking South Korea or Japan. It has 3700 tanks and 700 Soviet-built fighter jets.
In any military encounter, North Korea would obviously be no pushover. But it must know it could never win such a conflict, says Mr. Romberg, who notes that despite some incidents, North Korea has not dared launch an attack on the south since 1950. "There is a reason for this. We have sufficient deterrence in place to make it absolutely plain that if North Korea starts a war, we will finish it. They understand that. They are not suicidal. They understand that while they could inflict enormous casualties on South Korea that is one of the dangers of the situation at the end of the day, North Korea would be defeated, and there would be no more North Korea in the sense that there is today."
Destitute as it may be, North Korea has more to lose today than in 1950, says Victor Cha, professor in the school of foreign service at Georgetown University. He writes in The New York Times that North Korea has established economic ties with South Korea, its second largest trading partner after China. It is moving toward closer relations with the European Union and is trying to attract foreign investors for its industrial development. War would put an end to that.
Some analysts say the United States is not blameless in bringing on the North Korean threat. President Bush included North Korea with Iraq and Iran in what he called an axis of evil. He has expressed his disdain for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
Joel Wit says the North Korean reaction was not surprising. "The new administration was never really seriously interested in talking to the North Koreans, and on top of that, you had these repeated statements which the North Koreans took as insults to their leader and other hard-line statements by administration officials. You cannot expect a small country like North Korea to ignore those kinds of statements coming from the world's only superpower."
This is the danger of using words as weapons, writes Leon Fuerth, national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore. They are no substitute for a strategy, he says in The New York Times.
And they can backfire, adds Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs. Rather than inhibiting the North Koreans from building nuclear weapons, U.S. threats cause them to move all the faster. "In the event that the United States does not come back to the table, that a non-aggression treaty is not forthcoming, they clearly see themselves as being next on the list of Axis of evil states after Iraq. And they certainly want to have a nuclear option to make themselves more prickly to deal with, a defensive posture against a perceived threat from the United States."
Mr. Wit says North Koreans are quite confident of their strategy. The rather low-keyed reaction to their nuclear ambitions seems to vindicate their bold approach. "From the North Korean perspective, their calculus may be that like India and Pakistan they can become a nuclear weapons state, and they can weather the initial international storm. Then afterwards, everyone will tacitly accept their status, and they will be in a much stronger position to deal with the rest of the world."
But in an imperfect world with less than perfect leaders, things can go wrong, says Mr. Flake. Miscalculation is possible. So are accidents. He sketches one unnerving scenario. "This administration continues to refuse North Korean calls for negotiations. North Korea continues to try to ratchet up the pressure by stoking crises. They pull out of the NPT. They decide to test another missile. But what happens if the missile test goes awry and falls on Seoul or more horrifically still, falls on Tokyo? Then what happens?"
Mr. Flake says he could hardly think of the consequences. These can be avoided, he continues, by the resumption of some kind of diplomacy, as the White House seems to infer. "I don't think there are any voices within this administration or really not many in this town that would propose negotiating our way out of this deal. Secretary Powell has frequently said in recent days that would be tantamount to negotiating in response to North Korea's threat rewarding bad behavior if you will. But that said, they have made it clear that they are willing to talk."
South Korea, where anti-American sentiment is growing, continues to call for dialogue and warns against putting more economic pressure on the unpredictable regime to its north. Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed a regional conference to deal with the issue. The United States says it is not opposed.