N. Korea vs. Iraq: why US response differs

Pyongyang has not yet responded to Washington's new offer to talk over crisis.

Iraq's Saddam Hussein rules a desert kingdom with a potential to make atom bombs. Fellow dictator Kim Jong Il of North Korea, by contrast, has two nuclear programs, and possibly a couple of bombs.

To disarm Mr. Hussein - who has admitted UN inspectors - some 200,000 US troops are shipping to the Gulf this week on a mission that may last years. Yet even after North Korea kicked out UN inspectors and issued war threats, the White House this week backed away from a policy not to talk with "Dear Leader" Kim.

North Korea said Thursday it would delay a planned meeting with South Korea. And as of this writing, it had not responded to Washington's invitation to talk.

The resulting standoff is shaping North Korea into a major friction point in Asia that will test the region's stability. Kim's unexpected capacity to escalate tensions - and whispers in Washington that bombmaking ability makes Kim more dangerous than Hussein - has fueled the question: why Iraq and not North Korea?

Here in wintry South Korea, the logic of not taking military action is clear: Kim's thousands of artillery tubes could quickly turn Seoul into toast and endanger 37,000 US troops stationed in the country. North Korea also has missile technology with guidance systems accurate enough reach targets in Japan.

Yet beyond these basic differences, experts point to a laundry list of reasons why, despite a recent history of trickery and a violation of treaties by both states - the North presents a different picture from that of Iraq.

There is, for one thing, no "South Iraq." There is, however, a South Korea, whose leaders have a "go-slow" policy of engaging the North that differs markedly from the approach of the Bush team. Also unlike Iraq, North Korea does not abut geographically sensitive oil routes depended on by the world for energy. Nor has Kim invaded any neighbors lately, while Hussein's Army laid waste to part of Kuwait in 1990.

The main characters, Hussein and Kim, are themselves very different. Hussein, sometimes called irrational, has in the past flouted the West to buff his image in the Gulf region. Kim, despite his high-heel shoes, Don King-style hair, and odd history of kidnapping film actresses, is viewed as a rational actor - continuing the policy of his father, Kim Il Sung, who, after the cold war and the abandonment of allies Russia and China, sought to make a deal with the US to assure the survival of his regime at all cost.

"Kim is a rational actor who has been backed into a corner," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. "He has demonstrated internal consistency and logic in his approach. If you are an absolute leader on top of a failing system, and you are focused on survival, there is a reason to obtain a nuclear chip. It may not be constructive to US interests, but it is reasonable from a North Korean perspective."

To be sure, both Iraq and North Korea are repressive and closed, fatefully grouped as "axis of evil" members. Both produce dangerous bioweapons that can be exported. Hussein's Baathist Party discipline and Kim's Juche ideology both underpin a cult-like reverence for the state leader and force ordinary people into an absolute devotion that makes internal opposition impossible.

That reading was behind the Bush administration's initial snub to South Korea in 2001. Bush hawks felt the Clinton administration had been too conciliatory and blind to the North's evils, and that the "sunshine policy" of outgoing South Korean President Kim Dae Jung had propped up a bankrupt dictator and forestalled his collapse.

Whether accurate or not, the split over the North between Washington and Seoul has forced a major patching-up operation for the two sides, particularly since newly elected leader Roh Moo-hyun is a staunch advocate of Kim Dae Jung's policy, and was elected in December on a groundswell of anti-US feeling.

North Korea has long desired a nuclear option. A former East German official told Korea expert Don Oberdorfer that North officials said flatly, "We need the atom bomb."

As early as 1964, after China tested its first atomic device, delegates from the North approached Beijing, asking for assistance. Chairman Mao Zedong said no. The North asked China again in the mid-1970s - as South Korea embarked on a nuclear quest - and was met with the same response.

In the early 1980s, US satellite photos picked up the shape of what intelligence officials felt could be a nuclear facility in the North. They were correct. The small 5-megawatt reactor, soon to be joined by a much larger one, was located at a river bend at Yongbyon, 60 miles from the capital. North Korea's indigenous program was headed by Lee Sung Ki - a scientist who studied at Kyoto University in Japan, headed the engineering department at Seoul University, and then left for the North during the Korean War. He became a close chum of Kim Il Sung.

In 1985, a promise by Soviets for four light-water reactors for a civilian program came with the stipulation that Pyongyang sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It did. Mr. Oberdorfer, in his book "The Two Koreas," argues Pyongyang probably did not realize the nature of the international pressures that would arise as a result.

At the same time, the North continued pursuing its secret program at Yongbyon, though with minimal attention from the small circle of experts in Washington aware of the threat.

A former official in the Reagan and Bush administrations told Oberdorfer, "The real problem was the policymakers' reluctance to face the issue, an avoidance of reality that probably flowed from the realization of the scope and difficulty of the problem."

Just a decade ago, the North used its threat of a potential bomb to cause the US and then South Korea to eliminate nuclear programs from the peninsula. In the early 1990s, the US withdrew nuclear weapons from the South; after a treaty with the North in 1992, the South ended its own nuclear program.

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