As the United States builds up troops in the Persian Gulf for a possible war against Iraq over weapons of mass destruction, Washington and its allies are trying diplomacy to resolve a stand-off with North Korea over nuclear arms. Many experts believe North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his nuclear program may ultimately pose a greater global security threat than the partially-disarmed Saddam Hussein.
The world is focused on growing tensions between Iraq and the United States as the Bush Administration assembles its argument to use force to make sure Saddam Hussein's government does not have biological, chemical and nuclear arms. Against this backdrop, Washington and its allies are struggling with the issue of weapons of mass destruction in another so-called rogue state: North Korea.
Tensions began in October, when the United States confronted Pyongyang with evidence it had a covert nuclear weapons program underway. Pressure was applied in the form of halting energy aid to the impoverished communist state. By December, North Korea responded by openly moving to reactivate a nuclear power plant that could make weapons grade material and later expelled international monitors. North Korea sparked further alarm by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on January 10.
Yet in contrast to the build-up of U.S. and British troops in the Persian Gulf for a possible war with Iraq, the crisis in North Korea has triggered a flurry of high-level diplomatic activity involving the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China. All are calling for a peaceful solution and Washington has even suggested it might go some way to meet North Korea's demand for guarantees that the United States would not attack it. Clearly, the U.S. and its allies are taking very different approaches to these two nations.
Robert Einhorn, a former U.S. diplomat who is now a policy analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, explains why two approaches are being used. "Clearly North Korea has the more dangerous capabilities. It probably has one or two nuclear weapons and it has long-range missiles, which can reach South Korea and Japan and maybe even the United States. Iraq does not have long-range missiles and it does not have nuclear weapons yet though it is trying very hard to acquire them," says Mr. Einhorn. "But in terms of their actual behavior over the last 10 to 15 years, Iraq is clearly the more dangerous of the two. It has attacked Kuwait and Iran and it has fired ballistic missiles into Israel and Saudi Arabia."
While Iraq's weapons of mass destruction are thought to be far less powerful than North Korea's, analysts warn that the Iraqi leadership will utilize whatever weapons it thinks it can get away with. Twice in the last two decades, the Iraqi leader has also shown he is willing to attack his neighbors, something North Korea's Kim Jong Il has never done.
Still North Korea's nuclear potential is augmented by an already demonstrated missile capability. Pyongyang in 1998 by test-fired a multiple stage rocket over Japan, proving its potential reach. And as Mr. Einhorn explains, North Korea's conventional forces also pose a tremendous challenge. "I believe the [Bush] administration feels that we can engage in military action against Iraq with manageable military risks," he says. "The military risks involved in North Korea are very different. Any military conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be very damaging. So that I think that is another reason for dealing with the North Korean situation diplomatically"
U.S. defense officials say Pyongyang, with its huge arsenal, presents a different kind of challenge than Baghdad, which was partially disarmed and semi-contained after the 1991 Gulf War. North Korea could cause tremendous casualties within hours if Kim Jong Il were to order an attack on South Korea. In addition to its suspected nuclear bombs, it has more than one million troops in its standing army, with 70-percent of them forward-deployed. The North has an enormous amount of artillery within easy striking distance of Seoul. It is thought to have up to 200 medium-range missiles, as well as chemical and biological weapons.
Robert Ward, an analyst with the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, says other North Korean activities pose a threat to regional and possibly global security. "I think the risk is what North Korea has been doing in the past years, which is the kind of low-key destabilization of the region by, for example, importing and exporting weapons. Or things like drug running or money laundering or spying," he says. "Clearly, given how dire the economy is, they are under tremendous pressure to try to get money in any way they can. The risk is if the North Korean nuclear program isn't dealt with in a verifiable manner, proliferation of this technology, which would obviously bring in quite lot of money for the North, could be ramped up."
In comparison, U.S. officials say Saddam Hussein is about five years away from possessing a nuclear weapon. The Gulf War and subsequent U.N. inspections are believed to have eliminated some of Saddam's other weapon stockpiles and cut production capabilities for chemical and biological weapons.
Iraq and North Korea pose some similar threats to world peace. While North Korea may ultimately present a more powerful danger with its nuclear program, it appears the United States, Britain and some of their allies see the immediate challenge from Iraq as more likely to destabilize world order. Without a clear threat from Pyongyang of impending military action, analysts expect diplomacy will be the key tool used to defuse tension in the Korean Peninsula.