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U.S.: Washington Struggles To Explain Policy Gap On Iraq, North Korea

  • Jeffrey Donovan

The last UN arms inspectors are now gone from North Korea after being expelled by Pyongyang, which is believed poised to begin building nuclear weapons. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, however, is refusing to call the Korea situation a crisis and insists that Iraq is the main threat to world peace. As RFE/RL reports, U.S. officials are struggling to explain the divergent policies.

Washington, 2 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Just when Washington had managed to focus the world's attention on the threat of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, North Korea threatens to steal the limelight.

Pyongyang, which has expelled the last United Nations arms inspectors, has taken recent steps to restart plutonium production after admitting last fall it has had a secret nuclear-weapons program for years. Senior U.S. officials have said publicly they believe North Korea already has one or two small nuclear bombs.

Iraq, meanwhile, has let arms inspectors back in. They say Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is cooperating -- so far -- and that they have yet to find any nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons of mass destruction.

Yet the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which insists Iraq is a far more serious problem, is preparing for war in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, Washington refuses to call the Korean standoff a crisis, saying diplomacy can achieve a peaceful solution.

State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said this week (30 December) that each country merits its own policy -- even if North Korea, Iraq, and Iran together form what Bush calls an "axis of evil" that threatens world peace. "There is no cookie-cutter approach to diplomacy. There are different tools that need to be used at different times. There are different approaches to different countries, to different problems. Everything has its own context and its own history."

Still, critics at home and abroad have expressed concern and confusion over that vastly different approach.

Some say it smacks of hypocrisy. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher says it shows the Bush administration has its foreign priorities all wrong. Others say it reveals American motives in Iraq as being more about securing oil rights and protecting Israel than about arms of mass destruction.

Raymond Tanter, an expert on rogue nations, was on former President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council. A supporter of the Bush White House, Tanter nonetheless acknowledged that the administration faces a tall task in explaining its position. "There is justification for the confusion. How can you justify treating Iraq more harshly than treating North Korea?"

U.S. officials, to be sure, have been trying hard to explain themselves.

On 29 December, Secretary of State Colin Powell appeared on no fewer than five nationally televised news programs in a bid to clarify Washington's position. He said the U.S. is working with China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan to pressure North Korea to reverse its decision to restart its weapons programs and expel the UN inspectors.

Powell added that while the U.S. remains open to talking to North Korea, Washington will not help Pyongyang unless it takes steps to change its behavior.

North Korea says it has been forced to build nuclear arms to deter a possible preemptive U.S. strike. It is demanding direct negotiations with the U.S. and a nonaggression treaty.

Powell on 29 December said the U.S. has no plans for war with Pyongyang. "We are not planning a preemptive strike. The United States has a full range of capabilities -- political, economic, diplomatic, and, yes, military. But we are not trying to create a crisis atmosphere at this point by threatening North Korea."

Some U.S. officials have said privately that Washington will pursue a policy of "tailored containment" that may include further economic pressure on Pyongyang and preventing it from exporting ballistic missiles -- its main foreign-currency earner.

But increasing economic pressure on poverty-stricken Pyongyang is meeting fierce resistance in South Korea, whose President Kim Dae Jung said this week that further isolation of the North will not work -- much as U.S. isolation of Cuba has largely failed. Russia, China, and Japan have also expressed serious concerns about hard-line isolation of Pyongyang.

However, the State Department says no new sanctions are envisaged for North Korea. Moreover, spokesman Reeker added that the U.S. remains open to dialogue, and that Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly is set to travel to South Korea early next month to talk to U.S. allies about North Korea. "The United States, under President Bush's policy, [is] prepared to pursue a bold dialogue aimed at having a better relationship with North Korea."

Analyst Tanter, who is a professor at the University of Michigan, said the U.S. is justified in threatening to use force against Iraq while applying diplomatic pressure on North Korea.

He said Pyongyang and Baghdad are very different. For one, Saddam has a history of using weapons of mass destruction and invading neighboring countries. Moreover, because of its oil wealth, Iraq is hard to contain simply through sanctions. "North Korea, on the other hand, is a basket case and much more vulnerable to economic pressure and diplomatic pressure. So, therefore, you treat North Korea with deterrence and containment."

Another major difference between the two countries, analysts agree, is that a military strike against North Korea is difficult to entertain. Leaving aside nuclear weapons, Pyongyang has a million-strong army and enough artillery to destroy the southern capital of Seoul in the opening minutes of any battle.

Still, as North Korea's international nuclear violations appear to grow by the day, so, too, do voices critical of the administration's priorities.

For example, U.S. Senator Joseph Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said recently: "There is no urgency in Iraq. As long as the inspectors and the international community is there, there is little or no prospect of them being able to do much mischief. By any measure, in my view, if things get out of hand in North Korea, a lot more damage can be done to U.S. interests than can be done in the near term in Iraq."