Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

A Dangerous Distraction

By David G. Young

Omaha, Nebraska, December 24, 2002 --  

North Korea's dismantling of U.N. monitoring equipment at the Yongbyon nuclear power plant highlights the regime's immediate threat to the world. Unlike Iraq, North Korea possesses nuclear technologies that now or very quickly can be developed into numerous bombs capable of killing millions. But while America's war planners focus obsessively on the weakened middle-eastern nation, genuine threats to American people go relatively unanswered in North Korea.

Almost every overblown accusation the Bush administration has unsuccessfully tried to pin or Iraq has actually been admitted by North Korea. There is little to no evidence of Iraqi support for terrorism, but North Korea has admitted kidnapping and occasionally killing Japanese and South Korean civilians in strange abduction missions by boat and submarine. Iraq's isolated munitions industry has been incapable of aiding in proliferation for a decade, while Pakistan and Yemen have acknowledged that North Korea has recently sold them Soviet nuclear and missile technology. While the Iraqis have modified old Scud missiles to slightly extend their small range, the North Koreans have tested an intercontinental missile potentially capable of delivering a warhead to New York or Washington.

Of the many reasons to worry, it is the nuclear issue that presents the most immediate danger. One of America's justifications for war on Iraq is the delivery of aluminum pipes that could potentially be used to build centrifuges to refine uranium for a nuclear program. North Korea, however, has admitted having and using exactly this kind of technology to successfully refine uranium -- enough uranium that the CIA believes they have one or more atomic weapons. More dangerous still are the ready-to-go plutonium-rich fuel rods at the Yongbyon plant. These have been inspected and well-documented by the U.N., and can be fashioned into multiple nuclear warheads quickly. Now that the U.N. equipment monitoring this plutonium has been disconnected, and U.N. seals have been broken, nothing is stopping North Korea from producing several more nuclear weapons in the next few months.

This might not be quite so frightening without reflecting on the unpredictability of the North Korean regime. Totally isolated since the fall of the Soviet Union, the country has suffered famine for years. Even before these desperate years, the regime was so paranoid and irrational that it developed the most tightly closed Stalinist system in the world, and commonly fired on South Korean military and civilian targets from small naval vessels. Now that they've been backed into a corner by Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech, there is a very real risk that they could use their nuclear weapons. The leadership has gone so far as to say the United States is risking "nuclear war."

This is a terrifying and immediate threat to the world -- totally unlike any posed by Saddam Hussein. Yet the Bush administration continues to focus on Iraq as if blind to the real threats that face the American people.

Defenders of Bush's policy in Iraq like to note that there is no equivalence between Iraq and North Korea. They say there is good reason a military solution will work in Iraq but not North Korea, and this is why they use diplomacy with North Korea and plan an invasion for Iraq. The analysis of the difference is true. War in Korea would have terrible immediate consequences. The prosperous modern South Korean capital of Seoul is within artillery range of North Korean positions, and is an easy target should the desperate North Korean regime decide to go nuclear. In such a confrontation, a worst-case casualty count could be in the millions -- possibly including American civilians if a North Korean cargo ship has managed to smuggle a weapon near the shores of North America.

This is a striking difference with the threat posed by Iraq. But while this difference may justify the absence of American military threats toward North Korea, it does nothing to justify the difference in attention. With the Bush administration focusing so much energy on Iraq -- politically, diplomatically, and militarily -- there is no doubt that attention to North Korea's clear and present danger has suffered. Iraq is nothing more than a dangerous distraction, keeping the Bush administration from focusing on the real threats posed by desperate Islamic militants as well as the insane North Korean regime.

This lack of attention to real threats is inexcusable, given the potential consequences to Americans and other people in the West. North Korea is a far more immediate, powerful, and unpredictable threat than Iraq. If something terrible happens while the Bush administration's focus is elsewhere, history will not judge the president kindly.