SEOUL — The double crisis over weapons of mass destruction that now confronts the world in Iraq and North Korea respectively represents a golden opportunity to kill the proverbial “two birds with one stone.”
Thus far, however, the major concern has been over the Bush administration’s alleged inconsistency in tone and substance in addressing the more immediate and menacing threat in North Korea sotto voce while the less immediate threat in Iraq has been accompanied by “saber rattling” rhetoric — “Saddam Hussein will disarm or we will disarm him” — timed with major U.S. military deployments to the Persian Gulf.
Nothing of the sort has been suggested vis-a-vis North Korea. The handling is noteworthy in itself because of the contrast with military deployments that have accompanied past crises, most recently, the 1993-94 nuclear inspection faceoff.
However, it is a fundamental principle of international relations that policy need not be — and generally is not — applied consistently to different threats in different places even when there are compelling similarities in character, invoking the same issues and interests.
While this is bothersome and untidy to those who long for order and rationality in international politics, the reality is that the world is a complex place and the levers of power that might work in one way in one place may not be appropriate in another. Moreover, the national interests of allies and risks in taking military action must be taken into account that might either or preclude or necessitate a particular policy course.
Yet the world today is also a small place and, to an unprecedented degree, interdependent. For this reason, what is done in one part of the globe can — and often does — dramatically affect what decisions are made in another. What has all this got to do with the link between Iraq and North Korea? Plenty.
Beyond the fact that they are being addressed in different ways — the clock is ticking in the one with Hussein on a short leash, while it is momentarily frozen in the other with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il merely loathed — the two are, in reality, boxed together in the mind of American policymakers as part of the “axis of evil.”
Although, at present, predictions of how the two crises will play out are largely speculative, it is a safe bet that the kind of action taken or not taken in the former will directly impact on the latter. Thus, while the Bush administration is focused on Iraq, it is unquestionably, simultaneously looking over its shoulder at the other “evil.” What is critical, however, is that it correctly connects the dots this time around.
On the one hand, if war comes to Iraq, it automatically raises a notch the possibility of the threat or use of force against North Korea in a replay of the 1993-4 nuclear inspection standoff. On the other, if U.N. inspections are successful in disarming Hussein without the need for military action, North Korea will be under much great pressure to submit to similar inspections and the consequences for Pyongyang’s continued defiance of the IAEA would be severe.
Indeed, on many levels, the advantage of a nonmilitary outcome in Iraq outweigh the disadvantages. First, the Bush administration would come out better politically, both at the United Nations and in the region, if Hussein were to be disarmed peacefully. The U.N. Security Council resolution sending the inspectors back was a masterstroke of diplomacy, a 15-0 Security Council shutout. But if the U.S. now undertakes unilateral military action in the absence of, or in spite of, a Security Council consensus, it would likely forfeit the moral high ground of multilateralism it has so painstakingly constructed over the past several months.
Second, the Middle East as a region would be spared the kind of inflamed passions that would surely accompany war against Iraq. While in the long run this might be cathartic, in the short run it would be traumatic.
Domestically, the president would win plaudits — as did U.S. President Woodrow Wilson for “keeping us out of war” — if only for a short time until the U.S. suffered a crippling loss of life with the sinking of the civilian passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine. This time, however, while a strike would come after a crippling loss, there is a disconnect between the striker and the target.
But the strongest argument for a peaceful resolution of the issue of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction is the signal it would send to Pyongyang. There would be no wiggle room, no negotiations, only compliance with already agreed upon International Atomic Energy Agency inspections with the future of the Agreed Framework hanging in the balance.
In addition, future progress in North-South relations is conditioned on North Korea’s adherence to the Declaration on a Denuclearized Korean Peninsula and its compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the breach of which risks U.S. economic or military sanctions. In brief, the optimal solution for U.S. policy toward North Korea is to see inspections in Iraq through to a successful conclusion.
The 1999 Perry report concluded that military force is not even a last resort against North Korea for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the scale of potential loss of life involving South Korean and U.S. forces and civilians, and the effect of any military action on China, Russia and Japan. Pyongyang’s strong suit — knowing how difficult it would be to carry out military action against it — is just the reverse of Iraq’s situation.
The simple truth is that the North has no such defense against inspections. That is Washington’s strong suit — and should be played to the hilt — just as Hussein has put his cards on the table. Buried in the 12,000-page report he has submitted to U.N. inspections are clues revealing to the world how he intends to play his hand. For its part, Washington should sift through them carefully while avoiding the temptation to simply reach for its holster.
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