With the day of reckoning with Iraq looming, those who would rather ignore the threat posed by Saddam Hussein have found a favorite new red herring in North Korea. On the surface, it seems like inverted priorities: the country without nuclear weapons is on the brink of forcible disarmament, while the nation with a very much active nuclear program gets an olive branch.
Far from being driven by oil or ego, the push to oust Hussein has reached the point it has precisely because Iraq has not reached the point North Korea has: the development of nuclear weapons. The U.S. has no realistic military response to the North Korean crisis because of the nuclear arsenal at the disposal of Pyongyang. For the moment, that is not the case in Iraq.
North Korea cultivated nuclear weapons not because of some perceived slight perpetrated by the United States, but because of an overwhelming desire to become the big kid on the block. Judging by the collective astonishment of the world press, Kim Jung-Il’s gambit has worked—so far. Breathless reporters have trumpeted the “arrival” on the world stage of Pyongyang’s unstable dictator, despite the fact that no bombs will be falling in the region anytime soon.
Given the geographic realities—North Korea sits within 50 miles of Seoul, and it has already flown missiles over Japanese airspace—the Bush administration is hemmed in. Despite its sometimes chaotic approach to foreign policy, the White House has settled on a tack that actually demonstrates the President’s underappreciated gift for dexterity.
Rejecting the false choice between the military non-option and traditional—read toothless—diplomacy, President Bush made Pyongyang an offer it shouldn’t refuse: disarm in exchange for aid and support for the North Korean people. Will Jung-Il shake Bush’s hand in a glamorous photo op in the Rose Garden? Not likely. But when he refuses American aid, any chance Jung-Il would have had of winning the PR battle will be gone. The decision promises to be a stark one: maintaining nuclear weapons instead of feeding millions of starving North Koreans—a decision that sits squarely in the dictator’s lap.
Unfortunately for the world, no such peaceful proposition can be offered to Hussein, a man who has gassed thousands of his own people. With more than a decade to disarm, Hussein has instead chosen to repeatedly violate terms of surrender from the Gulf War and has escalated his development of WMD capabilities. Scads of weapons inspectors over the years have been bullied and intimidated by the obfuscating despot in Baghdad. But because of defectors and other intelligence sources, we know that Hussein harbors WMD capabilities—the chemical warheads discovered last week are just another confirmation—and based on his history, he is prepared to use them.
Sending young soldiers to possible death is nothing if not grim, and should only be done when absolutely necessary. But in making one of the most important decisions of his life, President Bush will surely also consider the consequences of inaction. Affording Hussein more time to husband his resources and redouble his WMD efforts would only put the world in further peril. Allowing Hans Blix and his band of merry revelers to fritter away the next few months, as players like France want, would merely push off military action until next winter at the earliest—possibly giving Hussein the window he needs to acquire long-sought nuclear weapons.
A world with a nuclear Baghdad would indeed be a different one than that which we face today. Hussein would be prepared to nuke the U.S.’s strongest democratic ally in the region—Israel—and military efforts, if any, would become infinitely more complex and potentially disastrous. And with a nuclear trump card in his back pocket, Hussein would be far more likely to unleash chemical and biological WMDs.
With Monday’s deadline for the weapons inspectors on the horizon, behind-the-scenes politicking at the United Nations has already begun. The case is a simple one: Saddam Hussein is not just a bad guy; he is a menace who must be disarmed. Let’s hope the U.N. joins the U.S. in doing so before Iraq joins North Korea in the ranks of nuclear nations.