North Korea's announcement that it is expelling UN nuclear facility inspectors and reactivitating a reactor that produces nuclear-weapons material raises the question of American priorities:
Is the Bush administration right to threaten war against Iraq, which seems less close than North Korea to obtaining nuclear weapons, while making clear that force is not an option in dealing with the Pyongyang government?
A comparison of the two situations makes clear that the administration is right. Using force against North Korea is inadvisable because the Communist nation is less vulnerable to attack than Iraq. War also is a less compelling option in dealing with North Korea because its nuclear weapons threaten American interests less than Iraqi nuclear arms would. A nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein would be more dangerous to the United States than a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-il. A war to destroy the North Korean nuclear program is not feasible for three reasons.
First, the Pyongyang regime may already have such weapons, which it could hurl at South Korea in response to an attack.
Second, even without nuclear arms, North Korea has enough firepower to inflict severe damage on South Korea, especially the capital, Seoul - even though a war would surely end with the demise of the Communist government. One reason countries seek nuclear weapons is to deter attacks by their neighbors. North Korea can already do this without nuclear arms.
Third, North Korea's neighbors, whose views the United States must respect, strongly oppose war. South Korea naturally wishes to avoid the damage it would suffer in a war and, in addition, is leery about the costs of reconstructing and rehabilitating North Korea, which the outcome of a second Korean War would surely force it to assume. Further, China and Japan are not eager to see the Korean peninsula reunified, another likely consequence of war there.
As far as is known, Saddam Hussein, by contrast, lacks both nuclear weapons and the non-nuclear capacity to do grievous damage to other countries. Also, none of his neighbors strenuously objects to a military confrontation with him and, even if they did, their objections wouldn't weigh heavily with the United States. The cost of war with Iraq is likely to be considerably lower than the price of war in Korea.
More importantly, a nuclear-armed North Korea, although hardly desirable, would pose a less grave threat to American interests than would a Hussein in possession of the bomb. For even a nuclear-armed North Korea could not intimidate, let alone conquer, its neighbors. China, Japan and South Korea are all prosperous, powerful countries with strong governments and formidable armed forces.
Japan and South Korea, although not nuclear-weapon states themselves, have solid alliances of long standing with the nuclear-armed United States.
In contrast, Hussein's neighbors, within whose borders is located much of the oil on which the global economy depends, are neither politically legitimate nor militarily powerful. They are no better able to defend themselves now than they were in 1991, when, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the United States led an international coalition that came to their rescue.
A nuclear-armed Hussein could intimidate or even occupy his neighbors, dominate the region, and hold the world hostage by the influence he would thereby exercise over its supply of oil. If he did possess nuclear weapons, the world would likely not be as quick or forceful in opposing him as it was in the early 1990s.
Of course, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Communist government of North Korea would adversely affect American interests in East Asia and globally. But the acquisition of nuclear weapons by an Iraqi regime headed by Hussein would, from the standpoint of American interests, be worse.
That is why the Bush administration is justified, even as it relies on diplomacy to keep nuclear weapons out of North Korea's hands, in committing itself to using all means necessary to disarm Iraq.