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Posted by Jeff from ( on Sunday, December 15, 2002 at 3:01AM :

Shrubya, the Oil Man...

N. Korea proves bigger danger than Saddam

Reactivated nuclear program distracts U.S. from Iraq

By Barbara Demick / Los Angeles Times
Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press

News reports in Seoul, South Korea, have raised fears over North Korea's announcement to resume nuclear arms production.

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SEOUL, South Korea -- An impoverished totalitarian regime. A reclusive leader who wields power through a cult of personality. Surreptitious plots to develop weapons of mass destruction. A penchant for blustery rhetoric and a distaste for international arms inspectors.

While the world has been fixated on Iraq, a hemisphere away, North Korea is presenting itself with an uncannily parallel dilemma. North Korea's declaration Thursday that it intends to resume its nuclear program, along with a confession in October about a secret project to enrich uranium for weapons, inconveniently is intruding on the Iraq crisis.

Iraq and North Korea are worlds apart in culture and ideology, and even North Korea's harshest detractors don't consider its leader, Kim Jong Il, to be another Saddam Hussein. But the diplomatic hand-wringing runs over the two charter members of President Bush's famous "axis of evil" runs along similar lines.

Like Iraq, North Korea is not terribly popular in the neighborhood, but its neighbors are nevertheless fearful of the chaos that might ensue if the regime collapses. As with Iraq, the United States consistently is moving several paces ahead of its allies in pressing a hard line toward North Korea.

Bigger dangers

While the Bush administration has said repeatedly that no military action is contemplated against North Korea, its position that it will not negotiate until Pyongyang shows signs of compliance is at odds with the views of South Korea and Japan.

"There is a vicious circle of negativity surrounding North Korea, just like with Iraq. The approach of the Bush administration is essentially the same even if they say it is not: No talking," said Moon Chung In, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.

From a policy standpoint, an obvious difference between the two countries is that North Korea is arguably more dangerous.

Although North Korea has a population of only 24 million, about the same as Iraq, it maintains a standing army three times the size of Baghdad's. The Korean People's Army, as it is called, is considered the fifth-largest army in the world.

According to U.S. congressional testimony earlier this year, the North Koreans have 1.2 million soldiers under arms, more than 12,000 artillery systems, 1,700 aircraft and the world's largest submarine fleet. Most of the force is deployed near the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas, putting it within easy striking distance of Seoul -- and of the 37,000 U.S. troops deployed in South Korea.

"Korea remains a place where U.S. forces could almost instantaneously become engaged in a high-intensity war involving significant ground, air, and naval forces. Such a war would cause loss of life numbering in the hundreds of thousands and cause billions of dollars in property destruction," Thomas A. Schwartz, the outgoing commander of U.S. troops in South Korea, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this year.

Biological weapons likely

North Korea is believed to have a program of chemical and biological weapons, but unlike Iraq, its stockpiles were not sought and destroyed in the 1990s by weapons inspectors. Only its nuclear program has been subject to inspection, and that is about to come to an end if North Korea carries through with its threat. The North Korean government Thursday asked the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, to remove its camera equipment and seals from nuclear facilities, although the two inspectors working in North Korea will be allowed to remain.

The United States' closest allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, have been loath openly to criticize the Bush administration, but there is no doubt that they would prefer to open a dialogue sooner rather than later. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, who won a Nobel peace prize for his efforts with North Korea, has been very vocal in calling for a U.S.-North dialogue without preconditions.

And even as North Korea was declaring this week that it would restart its nuclear program, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other officials were calling for negotiations.

In 1998, North Korea test-fired a long-range Taepodong rocket over Japan. The threat to renew testing was seen as an explicit warning to Tokyo, with which North Korea has begun to discuss normalization, but that too was shrugged off by Japanese officials.

"One can use both a carrot and a stick with North Korea, but if you use a stick and it fails, the results will be devastating," said Roh Moo Hyun, the ruling party candidate in South Korea's Dec. 19 presidential election. In an interview Wednesday with the Los Angeles Times, Roh said, "North Korea is different from Iraq. ... If it is attacked, it can strike back."

Nuclear arsenal

Critics of the Bush administration's Iraq policy say that North Korea is in fact much more dangerous than Iraq and that a double standard is being applied in which Pyongyang, the capital, is protected from U.S. attack by its terrifying array of weaponry.

"The North Koreans firmly believe that the difference between them and Iraq is their nuclear program and if they abandon that, it would be easier for the United States to attack them," said Lee Jong Seok, an academic with the Sejong Institute here who has made two recent trips to North Korea.

Lee said there is widespread disbelief in the North as well about the Bush administration's disclaimers that it isn't planning pre-emptive strikes against North Korea.

"The North Korean people, including Kim Jong Il, have not a shred of doubt that North Korea is the next target after Iraq," Lee said. Some North Korea watchers believe that Kim Jong Il, a clever strategist, is taunting the United States at this time because he believes the distraction of the Iraq showdown weakens U.S. resolve with regard to North Korea.

Bush's position regarding possible military action against North Korea is confusing. Although members of the administration ranging from the president himself to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have said repeatedly no attack is contemplated, a U.S. strategy announced this week calls for pre-emptive strikes against countries proliferating weapons of mass destruction.

But unlike the situation with Iraq, there has been public consideration about "regime change" in North Korea. Cynics say that is because the United States has nothing to gain from a change in North Korea, which does not have oil, as Iraq does, or other riches to attract U.S. commercial interests.

Asked last month to explain the different policies toward North Korea and Iraq, Bush replied, "As I said from the beginning of this new war in the 21st century ... each threat requires a different type of response."

-- Jeff
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