Iraq? What About Nuclear-Armed North Korea?

The news about North Korea's covert nuclear weapons program brings to mind the campy 1960s Batman TV show. Fans will recall that the Caped Crusader was often taunted by his nemesis the Riddler with a riddle.

So, in that vein, the following comes to mind: When is a weapon of mass destruction not a weapon of mass destruction? Answer: When it's North Korean.

After being confronted by a U.S. delegation during a visit to Pyongyang earlier this month, North Korean officials acknowledged the existence of a nuclear weapons program. Such a program would be a violation of international nonproliferation accords, including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea and the Joint North-South Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korea Peninsula.

According to the Bush administration, North Korea has further claimed it was "nullifying" the Agreed Framework.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told a Pentagon press conference that he believes the Koreans not only have a weapons program but also already have produced some weapons. He cited an intelligence report in which the CIA said North Koreans "may have one or two," and added, "I believe they have a small number of nuclear weapons."

The timing of North Korea's acknowledgement is curious. President Bush counts North Korea as a member of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and Iran. Yet the revelation of the nuclear program comes amid a string of surprisingly conciliatory moves by Kim, long criticized for peddling dangerous weapons and oppressing an impoverished population. In recent weeks, the Pyongyang government apologized for a naval battle with South Korea in the Yellow Sea and for the abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s.

But what is clear is that the Bush administration delayed revealing the news about the North Korean nuclear weapon program a couple of weeks until after Congress passed the resolution giving the president the authority to invade Iraq. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal, since July, the administration has delayed telling Congress about evidence showing that North Korea was conducting a nuclear weapons program.

If the news had been made public earlier, the administration might not have gotten the resolution approved.

The obvious question for Congress would have been: Why invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, but not invade North Korea and overthrow Kim Jong-il, whose nuclear weapons program is more advanced than that of Iraq?

News of the North Korean nuclear program also occurred just before the upcoming China-U.S. presidential summit. Washington now has made North Korean behavior a key issue of U.S.-Chinese relations and will expect China to keep its neighbor under control. But why the Bush administration thinks China will do the United States any favors is another mystery.

By seeking to resolve this new crisis through diplomacy, rather than force, administration officials are acknowledging that threatening preemptive military action is a dangerous and limited tool for dealing with regimes seeking to develop nuclear weapons. The administration's policy toward North Korea's nuclear program is in direct contrast to its recently issued National Security Strategy, which said: "To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."

Nor is that the only complication for the Bush administration. According to the New York Times, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Pakistan was a major supplier of critical equipment for North Korea's newly revealed clandestine nuclear weapons program. The equipment, which may include gas centrifuges used to create weapons-grade uranium, appears to have been part of a barter deal beginning in the late 1990s in which North Korea supplied Pakistan with missiles it could use to counter India's nuclear arsenal.

Normally, such news would lead to calls for sanctions against Pakistan. But in a post-Sept. 11 world, sanctions will not be imposed because Pakistan is now a leading ally in the "war on terror."

And the Bush administration's own foreign and national security policies may have an effect on North Korea's continued nuclear activities. The revelation of North Korea's nuclear program came in a meeting in Pyongyang between a senior State Department official and Kang Suk Ju, Kim Jong-il's right-hand man.

After being confronted with evidence that North Korea had a secret uranium-based weapons program, the North Korean official shocked the U.S. representative when he said something to the effect of, "Your president called us a member of the axis of evil ... Your troops are deployed on the Korean Peninsula ... Of course, we have a nuclear program."

David Isenberg is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.