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NORTH KOREA: Parallel to Iraq?

Why does the United States treat North Korea differently from Iraq?

Bush administration officials argue that North Korea and Iraq--both rogue states pursuing worrisome nuclear weapons programs--actually pose rather different challenges. Despite North Korea's disclosure last week of a secret nuclear-arms program, the United States is not threatening war to disarm it--unlike Iraq.

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How do U.S. officials describe the difference between North Korea and Iraq?

"Saddam Hussein in recent years has invaded two of his neighbors, used his weapons of mass destruction, and [Iraq] is a relatively wealthy country," Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Financial Times. "North Korea is an isolated country with no wealth, a broken economy, a broken society, with neighbors who are not happy with what it's done." The White House says that force may be required to topple Saddam because he is too aggressive to be contained, too reckless to be deterred, and too dangerous to Middle Eastern stability to be tolerated. On the other hand, the administration argues that North Korea--a starving country that may well already have one or two nuclear bombs--can be handled by containment, deterrence, diplomacy, and economic pressure. U.S. officials say North Korea may be willing to give up its nuclear program and poses less of a threat to U.S. interests.

What leverage does the United States have with North Korea?

It can offer two key things to the impoverished, isolated Stalinist holdout: aid and better relations with other countries. "The North Koreans are desperately in need of help from the outside," said Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a leading Iraq hawk. "We have leverage on North Korea that we do not have on Iraq." In a 1994 deal, the United States, South Korea, and Japan offered massive foreign aid--including a $4 billion project to build two nuclear reactors that couldn't be used for military purposes--in return for North Korea's promise to abandon its nuclear ambitions. North Korea also relied heavily upon the 500,000 tons of fuel oil per year that America donated under the terms of the 1994 agreement. If Washington withdraws its economic aid and urges its friends to do likewise, Pyongyang's economy might never recover.

Is the 1994 deal "nullified"?

Powell said that when North Korea confirmed that it had been secretly seeking nuclear weapons, it also told the United States that the 1994 deal was "nullified." Powell added, "Well, when you have an agreement between two parties and one says it's nullified, then it's hard to see what you do with such an agreement." But the official station Radio Pyongyang said Monday that North Korea has backed away from its assertion that the deal was dead.

Do nearby Asian states have leverage with North Korea?

Yes, to a degree. South Korea and Japan--North Korea's key estranged neighbors--have recently tried to reach out to North Korea, and experts say Pyongyang may be reluctant to lose the promise of warmer ties and more aid. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently visited North Korea, and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung has also made major diplomatic overtures. North Korea's closest regional ally is China, which is also not eager to see North Korea acquire a bomb of its own; the Bush administration hopes to get China to pressure North Korea when Chinese President Jiang Zemin meets President Bush this week in Crawford, Texas.

Could the United States use force to make North Korea disarm?

Not easily. U.S. military action could lead North Korea to unleash its arsenal, both conventional and nonconventional, and devastate South Korea--as well as the 37,000 U.S. troops deployed there. Despite his country's desperate poverty, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has retained a massive conventional army, much of it deployed near the demilitarized zone that has separated the two Koreas since the Korean War ended in 1953. Some 950,000 North Korean troops are just 20 miles or more from Seoul, the South Korean capital. Compared to Iraq, Powell says North Korea "is a lot stronger militarily, but it is sitting on a very rotten base with respect to its economy."

Is North Korea's nuclear program more advanced than Iraq's?

Yes. Like Iraq, North Korea has been secretly developing nuclear weapons for years; unlike Iraq, North Korea may well already have the bomb. A December CIA National Intelligence Estimate reported that North Korea had probably made one or two plutonium-based nuclear weapons by the mid-1990s. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he believes North Korea possesses "several" such weapons.

Does North Korea have a stronger missile program than Iraq?

Yes. North Korea has test-fired a missile with close to intercontinental range, while Iraq relies on a small stash of souped-up Scud missiles--capable of hitting nearby countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia but notoriously inaccurate. Advanced missiles could be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction. To get hard currency, North Korea has also reportedly sold ballistic-missile technology to Iran, Syria, Libya, and Pakistan.

Has North Korea ever used weapons of mass destruction?

No. Still, it has a considerable arsenal, even beyond whatever nuclear arms it may have. The Pentagon says that North Korea has stockpiles of chemical weapons, and it's also thought to have an active but primitive biological weapons program.

Can Iraq be handled by deterrence?

Experts hotly disagree. Some note that Iraq refrained from using chemical weapons or launching terrorist attacks against America during Operation Desert Storm after Secretary of State James Baker and President George H.W. Bush warned that such actions would mean the "severest consequences." The threat of Israeli nuclear reprisal also seems to have deterred Saddam from placing chemical or biological warheads on the Scuds that Iraq fired into Israeli cities during the Gulf War. But warnings from Baker and Bush did not stop Saddam from torching Kuwait's oil fields. Iraq hawks like the Brookings Institution's Kenneth Pollack argue that over the long haul, deterrence is too risky because Saddam is "often unintentionally suicidal--that is, he miscalculates his odds of success and frequently ignores the likelihood of catastrophic failure."

Can North Korea be handled by deterrence?

We don't know. Some experts argue that Kim Jong Il is so desperately broke that he's merely out for survival, not for regional dominance--and therefore can be induced to trade his nuclear program for economic help. Skeptics warn that Pyongyang's nuclear disclosure proves the folly of trusting tyrants.