Never trust an axis of evil. That is what President Bush recently learned to his chagrin when North Korea stunned the world by admitting it possessed nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction.

This bombshell from normally secretive Pyongyang enormously embarrassed the Bush administration just as it was gearing up for war against Iraq and caused a furor in Japan and South Korea. The carefully cultivated pretense by Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul that North Korea had no nuclear weapons, and had suspended its nuclear programs nearly a decade earlier, was exposed.

For the Bush administration, North Korea’s confession could not have come at a worse time. The main rationale for attacking Iraq advanced by administration hawks has been the alleged mortal danger to America from Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction. In a disgraceful act, the White House withheld the news about North Korea from Congress for 12 days so as not to jeopardize the vote giving Bush carte blanche to attack Iraq.

Even though the U.S. admits Iraq does not have any nuclear weapons, it might, claims Washington, be a threat sometime in the future. Iraq’s current missile force—some 90-mile ranged tactical missiles and a handful of 220-mile range improved Scuds—certainly does not and will not ever threaten the United States. But, warns the administration, Iraq might give chemical or biological weapons to anti-American terrorists, no matter that when Iraq had such weapons it never shared them with any other nation or group and no matter that chemical warfare demands tons of toxic material, and biological warfare requires highly sophisticated dispensing systems.

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North Korea’s revelations now make all these speculative “mights” about Iraq seem chimerical. North Korea now has all the weapons of mass destruction that the most fevered neoconservatives claim Iraq might one day possess. Equally important, Americans and perhaps soon, the continental United States, are in North Korea’s nuclear gun sights.

Confronted by North Korea’s admission, the wrong-footed President Bush lamely called for “tough negotiations” with North Korea over its nuclear and biowarfare arsenal. The very same Bush who adamantly refuses to negotiate with Iraq over the very same issue. The same Iraq that was an American ally during the 1980s, when Britain and the U.S. covertly supplied Baghdad with the same chemical and biological weapons about which they fulminate today.

Critics of the administration’s headlong rush to war were quick to point out the glaring contradiction in Bush’s policy of negotiating with truculent, heavily armed, and highly dangerous North Korea while refusing talks with demolished, impotent Iraq. Surely, when the lives of American soldiers are at risk, negotiations are always preferable to war.

Contradictions and illogic do not seem to trouble much the president who knows good when he see it—such as in the eyes of his new “friend,” former KGB officer Vladimir Putin—and evil, as personified by “the guy who tried to kill my dad,” Saddam Hussein, the Bush family bête noire.

After claiming Iraq had to be invaded because it had ignored the United Nations, a week later the president threatened to ignore the UN if it did not give him a blank check to invade Iraq.

The Korean nuclear imbroglio began in 1993 when U.S. intelligence discovered North Korea was producing plutonium-based nuclear weapons at Yongbyon and developing medium-ranged and intercontinental missiles able to deliver nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads. According to the CIA, North Korea possessed at least two assembled nuclear warheads.

Faced with this nasty news, the Clinton administration threatened war against North Korea if it did not abandon its nuclear program. After the Pentagon warned that full-scale war with the North could cost 250,000 U.S. casualties, Clinton backed down and chose bribery over combat. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea agreed in 1994 to supply penurious North Korea with $4 billion of oil and food, and two light-water nuclear reactors, in exchange for Pyongyang freezing its nuclear program.

Since then, U.S. and South Korean intelligence has repeatedly warned that North Korea was violating the 1994 agreements by secretly developing enriched uranium and accelerating missile projects. These alarms were ignored.

The Bush administration adopted Clinton’s “see-no-evil policy” towards North Korea, continuing the pretense that it posed no threat. When the flow of U.S. aid to North Korea faltered, and delays occurred with the two light water reactors, Pyongyang finally revealed in early-October it was enriching uranium, as well as plutonium, for weapons production. Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul were forced to admit what they had been denying for years: North Korea was nuclear armed and dangerous.

Very dangerous, in fact, and highly unpredictable. By latest estimates, the North has at least 3-5 nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has deployed 500 missiles, including 100 No-dong missiles with a 780-mile range and is developing the Taepo-dong-2 ICBM, which can reach the continental U.S. Many of these missiles can carry nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads. The North is believed to have 5,000 tons of chemical weapons and advanced nerve gases.

North Korea has been steadily expanding its million-man army, which has 4,000 tanks and 12,000 heavy guns or rocket launchers. The North’s equipment is obsolete, but its army is tough, aggressive, and dug into fortified positions, caves, and tunnels—including one this writer visited, driven under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that allowed a full 12,000-man North Korean infantry division to pass in short order under U.S. and South Korean defenses.

North Korea also fields the world’s largest commando force: 100,000 crack special forces whose prime mission is to infiltrate South Korea in wartime from the air, land, and sea and deliver suicide assaults against all ten of the vital U.S. and South Korean airbases and headquarters on the peninsula and to strike U.S. air and naval bases in Japan, Okinawa, and even Guam. The North’s Scuds and No-dong missiles, armed with chemical warheads, are also targeted on airbases in South Korea, Japan, and Okinawa. Pentagon war games have shown that if North Korea can quickly neutralize these vital air bases, it can occupy all of South Korea before U.S. reinforcements can arrive.

In addition, 10,000 North Korean heavy guns and rocket launchers along the DMZ are poised to deliver a torrent of conventional explosives, chemicals, and germs down on the 37,000 U.S. troops of the 2nd Infantry Division along the border and on other units further south. Seoul’s 10.6 million people are also within range of North Korean artillery. Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened to “burn” Seoul and the American troops stationed in South Korea and quite clearly has the capability to do so.

In short, North Korea—unlike Iraq—has the ability to kill or wound many Americans and, before long, will threaten North America with nuclear-armed missiles. President Bush, however, has dismissed such dangers while continuing to insist Saddam Hussein must be overthrown because he is “a uniquely evil dictator who gassed his own people,” (meaning: rebellious Kurds). Bush, however, has nothing to say about his close ally, Israel, which is using American-supplied tanks firing rounds packed with thousands of razor-sharp flechettes, helicopter gunships, fighter bombers, and heavy anti-tank missiles against its “own people,” Palestinian civilians, an egregious violation of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act.

North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-Il, may not top Bush’s roster of evil, but in South Korea and Japan, both now targets of No-dong missiles, he is regarded as extremely dangerous and unstable. With his alarming bouffant hairdo, too-tight khaki jump suit displaying his pot belly, and elevator heels, Kim Jong-Il looks like a hostile alien from outer space in a cheesy Japanese sci-fi film.

Kim’s regime has proven more lethal than “evil” Saddam Hussein’s. While two million of its people were starving to death, North Korea’s army was acquiring new weapons and stockpiling two years worth of food and fuel for war reserves. The Communist Party and military eat well while peasants die of hunger. Tens of thousands of North Koreans languish in prison camps. On another bizarre note, North Korea recently admitted to kidnapping Japanese citizens and staging numerous terrorist attacks against South Korea, including airplane hijackings and bombings.

Negotiating with North Korea still remains preferable to a massive war on the Korean Peninsula. Just the specter of a long-dreaded two front war in Iraq and Korea is giving the Pentagon justifiable anxiety. Already over-stretched U.S. forces would be put in an extremely difficult position if Kim Jong-Il decided to attack South Korea while U.S. forces were bogged down in Mesopotamia and the Gulf. Moreover, Kim’s nuclear arsenal would trump U.S. threats to respond to such an attack with tactical nuclear weapons.

Which brings us back to the question: why is the U.S. not negotiating a peaceful resolution of the issue of weapons inspection in Iraq, which likely has only some old chemical weapons and a few drums of stale-dated toxins, while negotiating with the ‘Dear Leader’ who is building nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can reach Washington and says he will never give up his nuclear weapons?
The short answer: oil and Israel. The Bush administration wants Iraq’s vast oil reserves, and Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush’s mentor in matters strategic and Middle Eastern, wants Iraq crushed and fragmented. North Korea has no oil.

As a result, the ‘see-no-evil’ charade with North Korea will continue. Besides, since Vietnam, the U.S. has preferred to attack small nations with limited military capacity: Grenada, Panama, Libya, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Pentagon hawks believe they can crush Iraq in a week and occupy it in 30 days. A jolly little war will prove popular and boost Bush into a second term. By contrast, disarming North Korea means a real war against a real foe.

Eric S. Margolis is author of War at the Top of the World: The Struggle for Afghanistan and Asia and Contributing Foreign Editor of Sun Media.