- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Flush with our victory in Afghanistan, poised to invade and occupy Iraq, the United States bestrides the globe like a colossus. But Gulliver was big, too, and he found Lilliputians could be a great hindrance. We are now learning that lesson from a primitive Stalinist backwater with a puny economy and just 21 million people.

The North Korean government recently surprised the Bush administration by admitting it has pursued nuclear weapons in violation of a 1994 agreement. The administration was not surprised by the program, which it had detected and brought up with the North Koreans only by their candor about what they had done. They acknowledged having "other more powerful things as well," reported the New York Times, which apparently means chemical or biological weapons.

As if this distraction from Iraq weren't enough, U.S. intelligence officials say the supplier of technology for the nuclear program was our cherished ally in the war on terror: Pakistan. The administration is justifying an invasion of Iraq to prevent nuclear proliferation while forging close ties with a dictator who helps our enemies get doomsday weapons.

What the North Koreans are up to is a puzzle. The admission could be taken as a warning of the consequences we can expect if we deal with them the way we propose to deal with Saddam Hussein. But some experts think the North Koreans were coming clean as a step toward abandoning their program if they can get something in return.

At the moment, though, no one in Washington is very interested in bartering. The Bush administration pronounced the death of the 1994 deal, which obligated the U.S. and other countries to provide North Korea with fuel oil and help in building two nuclear reactors.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle demanded an end to economic aid. The conservative Center for Security Policy shrieked that the Clinton officials who negotiated the 1994 agreement should "flagellate themselves, begging forgiveness and doing eternal penance."

But none of this outrage alters the unhappy choices for dealing with the North Koreans, which are as follows: Isolate them, attack them, bribe them or put up with them.

Punishing Pyongyang through diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions sounds like a great idea until you remember that we tried that approach for 40 years. What did we get? The same nuclear weapons program that the 1994 agreement was intended to extinguish. Kim Jong-il's government has proven quite able to endure pariah status and a starving population when it has to.

The Iraq formula using military force to remove a hostile government is out of the question. To begin with, North Korea has a large army, and it could inflict catastrophic damage on Seoul, a city of 10 million in artillery range of the Demilitarized Zone. We could win a war on the peninsula, but only at an intolerable price.

That's without even taking into account any weapons of mass destruction the North Koreans may have. The CIA says they probably produced one or two nuclear weapons before accepting the 1994 deal.

South Korea and Japan see no real alternative to negotiation, which has already led to improvement of relations between those two countries and North Korea. But it's hard to hold out great hope for a process that Pyongyang has badly discredited.

So what does that leave? Accepting something a nuclear North Korea that we may not be able to change. It's not as though Kim Jong-il can use nukes for any aggressive purpose, since doing so would mean total destruction. Our conventional forces and nuclear arsenal are perfectly capable of containing North Korea in the future, just as they have in the past.

But this latest development ought to remind Americans that even the world's only superpower can be stymied. Many nations have powerful incentives to acquire nuclear weapons and as Iraq, Pakistan and North Korea have demonstrated they are willing to pay a high price to do so.

Nukes, after all, are the best way to assure a government's survival. The only reason we can plan on invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein is that he hasn't gotten those weapons yet. Any government that has serious disagreements with the U.S and particularly any on our "axis of evil" knows that if we can decide who rules Iraq, we may later decide who rules other nations. There is only one protection: going nuclear.

The Bush administration has big plans for remaking the world to suit its preferences. We shouldn't be surprised if some countries will do everything they can to resist those plans, and we shouldn't be surprised if some succeed.

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