WASHINGTON — The acknowledgment of North Korea's nuclear-arms program may lend fresh credence to President Bush's characterization of Iraq, Iran, and the Korean dictatorship as an "axis of evil," but it also profoundly complicates the American response to the mass-weapons problem.
For all the diplomatic and security knots the Iraq crisis is tying, dealing with Saddam Hussein may turn out to be much less complicated than the challenges posed by the prospect of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons on the Korean peninsula.
Some observers say the administration will learn now that it was a grave mistake for Bush to equate North Korea and Iraq in his "axis" portrayal: The different approaches to the two challenges will expose the US to more charges of warmongering (in the case of Iraq) and of contradictory action.
Yet while the administration struggles to balance two confrontations with weapons-wielding pariah regimes at once, analysts say there are valid reasons to treat Baghdad and Pyongyang differently as the Bush administration appears to be doing so far. But the way forward is also rife with pitfalls.
"This [the North Korean issue] is a diplomatically trickier problem than what we have going with Iraq and we're seeing that's tricky enough," says William Clark, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
Certainly some of the hard-line influences in the administration will be arguing for a tough, even threatening, line with a government that admits secretly violating the intent of a 1994 agreement aimed at stopping North Korea from acquiring nuclear arms. Administration sources say the immediate response of some policymakers was that this was a "material breach" of the 1994 accord. Its wording the US has tried to include in a UN resolution dealing with Iraq, and which the US believes constitutes grounds for use of force.
But the differences between Iraq and North Korea are many, and other circumstances make it harder for the US to threaten the use of force on the Korean peninsula as well, analysts say.
To start with, North Korea has a much larger army than Iraq's, and it is deployed against a key US ally, South Korea, where 37,000 US soldiers are stationed. North Korea also has large stores of chemical and biological weapons that could wreak havoc on the peninsula. Whether the North already has weaponized nuclear arms apparently remains a mystery.
"It's not so easy [for the US] to threaten the use of force in this case," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington. He notes that North Korea has enough artillery arrayed to "ruin Seoul [South Korea's capital]... tons of chemical and biological weapons too horrible to contemplate," and what he considers a "50-50 chance they already have some nuclear weapon." Mr. Albright adds, "This is a much harder nut [than Iraq] to crack."
Another factor is that even though the US now knows as the North Koreans have confirmed that the North has an advanced nuclear-weapons program, it doesn't appear to know where the research and development is taking place. (The US appears to have determined the North has a nuclear-weapons program based on procurement intelligence, not satellite imaging.) That would rule out an attack to take out a site.
But there are other reasons North Korea may be more reasonable than its belligerent armor indicates and can still be dealt with diplomatically. Steve Montagne, a North Korea expert at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, says the US should consider that Pyongyang has never resorted to using the chemical and biological weapons unlike Saddam Hussein. And, he says, recent conciliatory gestures to Japan and South Korea suggest the North is open to negotiations.
"I'd expect any hard-line opponents of North Korea to push the parallels between Iraq and the North and to argue for some action down the road, maybe after Iraq's weapons are dealt with," says Mr. Montagne. "But I think that would be unwise. The openings the North Koreans are making in the region suggest there's room to explore another way out of this crisis."
One way forward for the US could be to declare that economic ties with North Korea, which it appears eager for, remain on hold until Pyongyang agrees to dismantle its weapons and accept inspections. "That won't be easy to negotiate, but it might be a way out," says Albright.
Still, pressing negotiations now with North Korea will likely add to criticism around the world about US belligerence towards Iraq. How do you explain to the international community, says Albright, that you're going to war with one country that is developing nuclear weapons, but you're willing to negotiate with another country that already has them?