No United Nations inspectors were needed in North Korea for that country to admit this month that it's making bomb-grade nuclear material. Now the big question for President Bush is: Should the US seek a regime change in Pyongyang as it wants for Baghdad?
The two threats are similar. Like Iraq, North Korea has a history of invasion (1950) and a cache of missiles. It's engaged in terrorism and let millions of its people die while building up its military. It has been appeased again and again by other countries, only to reverse itself.
And just as Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (notably chemical), the North says it never scrapped its nuclear program as it agreed to do in 1994 and has "more powerful things as well"; it already has enough plutonium to produce two nuclear bombs.
The big difference is that North Korea doesn't sit on the world's second largest oil reserve, as Iraq does. Nor does it aid Arab terrorists or live in a volatile neighborhood like the Middle East. Rather, it's surrounded by big powers (China, Russia, Japan), and faces 37,000 soldiers from a superpower (the US) in South Korea.
Koreans, over their history, have seen their small peninsula as a shrimp among whales, and used clever tricks rather than direct confrontation to survive. Thus, North Korea's admission of its nuclear project could just be another trick, not a threat. In recent years, the bankrupt communist regime has used trickery for one end: to get food and money for its starving 22 million people. This time may be no different.
Last month the North admitted to Japan that it had indeed kidnapped many Japanese for spy training. The North hopes this will now result in billions in aid. It had better think again.
Mr. Bush should neither invade North Korea nor bribe it to abandon its weapons (as President Clinton tried by promising to build "safe" nuclear reactors). Nor should he let the North split the US, Japan, and South Korea in their policy on North Korea.
Being "flexible" with the extortionist North no longer works. But ousting the regime of Kim Jong Il seems more dangerous than useful; it will crumble soon enough. In the meantime, the US should no longer prop it up with any diplomatic lifelines.