TCS Daily

No More Bombshells

By Duane D. Freese - October 22, 2002 12:00 AM

In a news alert last week, The Economist headlined North Korea's admission that it was working on nuclear weapons as "dropping a bombshell."

Well, if it is, it's only so for people who like to stick their heads in the sand. The Central Intelligence Agency back in 1998 indicated that North Korea was developing such arms in violation of the Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1994. Last spring, the agency estimated it had at least one or two warheads. That's why the Bush administration didn't certify its performance in meeting the accords.

But many prefer to keep their heads underground, including government officials in South Korea, most under threat by the despotic communist regime, who have represented the admission as an attempt by North Korea to become more honest and open.

More open? James Kelly, the Bush administration's special envoy to Pyongyang, evoked the admission only by displaying direct photographic evidence of what the despotic regime was doing. Making a virtue of criminal regimes - after years of denial - admitting that which they are caught red-handed doing is ludicrous. But it explains why rogue regimes can get away with so much.

President Jimmy Carter, who received the Nobel Prize recently for bringing Anwar Sadat and Menachim Begin together to negotiate in the 1970s, had a perpetual blindness to Soviet dangers during the euphoria with detente. He cut defense spending, didn't stand up to Soviet arms control violations, and then was surprised by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

It took a cold-style warrior - Ronald Reagan - who viewed the Soviet Union as "the evil empire" to negotiate meaningful arms control on the basis of an oxymoron: "trust, but verify."

Many who declaimed Reagan's describing the Soviets in moral terms in the 1980s now cringe at President George W. Bush's description of Iraq, North Korea and Iran as "an axis of evil."

On National Public Radio on Oct. 21, former Carter ambassador to Iraq, Edward Peck, said that what the Bush administration needed to do is talk with Iraq. "We haven't talked with them in 12 years," he said.

What should Bush do? Visit Baghdad as Clinton in his waning days almost visited Pyongyang? There have been ongoing discussions at various levels with the Iraqi regime throughout the last dozen years. How does Peck think that the agreement ending military action in return for Saddam's opening his country to United Nations' inspections came about? Peck has been critical of sanctions and military strikes against Iraq for a decade, but has offered no realistic alternative to getting Hussein's regime to comply with terms of the ceasefire other than to suggest more dialogue.

Meanwhile, other critics of the administration's tough stance toward Iraq are twisting North Korea's admission of having nuclear weapons into another reason not to threaten Iraq with military action if it fails to comply with its obligations.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., on Face the Nation on Oct. 20 argued: "If you put the two, North Korea and Iraq, on the scales and ask the question, which is today the greater threat to the people of the United States of America, I would answer the question: North Korea. And I think that needs to be part of the rebalancing of our foreign policy priorities."

But why is North Korea considered a greater threat? Because it has nuclear arms and has developed missiles to deliver them. It's unfortunate that the Clinton administration didn't stop it from getting them. If it had stood up to Pyongyang earlier, rather than dialoguing to new aid and other support for that decrepit regime, things might be different now. And that failure has left the Bush administration with limited alternatives.

That doesn't mean the Bush administration is hypocritical in not threatening North Korea with military action - except if it uses weapons against the South or others in the region. It would be dumb to issue an empty threat of military action when the costs of such action would be too high.

The same particular military, diplomatic and technological realities don't apply right now to Iraq. But what would Graham say about priorities if Iraq admitted it had nuclear weapons or, as the North Koreans reportedly told Kelley, worse things?

The calculation that Hussein is a limited threat is based on the notion that it would take him years to get such weapons and the means to deliver them.

But as Richard A. Muller, professor of physics at the University of California-Berkeley, wrote in the latest edition of MIT's Technology Review, that more than likely isn't the case.

Muller notes that Saddam doesn't need a full-fledged nuclear program to produce a pretty devastating nuclear weapon. He might simply import highly enriched uranium (HEU) from smugglers from such places as Kazakhstan. And there's evidence he could do so. In November 2001, police in Istanbul seized about one kilogram of HEU smugglers were trying to sell.

HEU is more difficult to detect than plutonium. It could be made into bombs smuggled into the United States in lead-lined cases.

We know that Hussein has pursued weapons of mass destruction almost since he came to power. We know, too, that he used one weapon of mass destruction - nerve gas - on a Kurdish community in 1988 during his war with Iran. We know that Iraq has been a haven for terrorists. But as Muller says, "We can hope" that he hasn't developed the wherewithal to give them weapons to use against American cities.

Such hope is a thin thread to base foreign policy on, yet Graham and Peck would delay U.S. action to eliminate the Iraqi threat until that hope, too, vanishes, and instead of one surprise about nuclear capabilities, this country and the world faces, two.

The Bush administration has its priorities straight - protecting this nation against nuclear "bombshells."



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