Who Is The Bigger Threat?

George W. Bush did not just awaken to the menace of Kim Jong Il. Long before the North Korean dictator kicked out international inspectors, removed the monitoring seals and cameras from his nuclear plant at Yongbyon and threatened to restart his plutonium-based nuclear program, Bush had taken stock of the "Great Leader." He included North Korea in his Axis of Evil speech nearly a year ago. And when The Washington Post's Bob Woodward interviewed Bush last summer, the president nearly jumped out of his chair when asked about Kim. "I loathe Kim Jong Il!" Bush shouted. The president wondered how the civilized world could allow Kim to starve his own people and torture his critics in prison camps. "It is visceral," Bush said. "Maybe it's my religion... but I feel passionate about this."

Moral clarity. It is Bush's great strength, and potentially his great weakness. The man doesn't noodle all sides of a problem, as Bill Clinton did, or allow himself to be deterred by complexities. By painting the world in simple, stark colors--good and evil, for us or against us--Bush projects a firm sense of purpose and direction. This worked splendidly in the months following 9-11. But the world is reverting again to gray, a murky mix of competing threats. Isn't Kim as much of a menace--to his own people, as well as his neighbors--as Saddam Hussein? And if so, why is Washington leading the world toward war in the Middle East, where Saddam is appearing to allow weapons inspectors free rein, while playing down the threat from the already armed and uncooperative Kim? If nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are the greatest threats facing mankind--and Bush "will not wait on events while dangers gather," as he declared a year ago--why now send a new message that North Korea can wait?

That may be because the Bush administration has not yet come to a clear decision about how to handle North Korea. Administration officials tell NEWSWEEK they have been taken aback by the speed of events since the summer, when U.S. intelligence first caught sight of the North's secret nuclear program. After Pyongyang's defiant nuclear admission in early October, the national-security principals--including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld--attempted to carve out a clear line. It turned out to be anything but. They rejected the Clinton-era policy of engaging the North, which conservatives condemned as a polite form of appeasement, and chose instead a cold war-style effort to contain the Stalinist state--and bring about its collapse. But when it came to the military option, they took a softer line than the Clinton Pentagon, which was ready to launch strikes in 1994. Officials concede that the current policy of containment is so ill-defined that the ever-squabbling hawks and doves inside the Bush administration are still fighting over the details. The options range from striking a deal with Pyongyang to a harsher package of sanctions. "This has opened up all the old fault lines," says one official.

In the short term, the Bush administration is pursuing an international solution to the crisis it refuses to call a crisis. Initially, that means pressing allies such as Japan and South Korea to tell the hermit state it can forget about its recent promises of new economic openings unless it renounces nuclear weapons. State Department officials will be delivering that message in Washington this week, and in the region later this month. "It's a policy of pressure as much as containment," says one. At the same time, the administration hopes for a resounding condemnation of North Korea by U.N. nuclear inspectors this week. That would be the start of what conservatives inside the administration hope is a gradual tightening of the noose around the North. Before the United Nations hears the critical weapons inspectors' report on Iraq at the end of this month, administration officials are keen to win U.N. Security Council agreement to at least three sanctions on North Korea: no arms shipments in or out, no flights in or out and limited movement of North Korean officials in or out. "It's like dealing with a 7-year-old having a tantrum," one administration official says. "You can have your screaming fit but we are going to keep you in your box until you behave."

But what if the box is never fully closed? Only last month the White House allowed a North Korean shipment of Scud missiles to pass through its dragnet in the Arabian Sea en route to Yemen. That cargo was a reminder, if any were needed, that Pyongyang is ready to sell its weapons--including perhaps nuclear technologies--to anyone who can pay hard cash. It also demonstrated how the tough-talking Bush administration can be driven off course. Officials tell NEWSWEEK that the Pentagon's Special Forces, currently engaged in covert operations in Yemen, persuaded the White House to back the Yemenis as part of its continuing pursuit of Qaeda terrorists.

Even if the Bush administration can hold to one line against North Korea, its strategy will be hard--maybe impossible--to maintain without the support of the region. In South Korea, President-elect Roh Moo Hyun poured scorn on a U.S. containment policy last week, and his aides said they were preparing to broker a new peace deal between Washington and Pyongyang. Then there are Kim Jong Il's main backers in Moscow and Beijing. U.S. officials already believe that a Chinese company delivered a chemical shipment to North Korea to help restart its nuclear reprocessing plant and churn out weapons-grade plutonium. Now, to encourage Chinese cooperation, administration officials are quietly voicing their concerns that a nuclear-armed North Korea would encourage Japan to launch a nuclear program of its own--and trigger an Asian arms race.

For the moment, the Bush administration's biggest worry is that the world may be deflected from its pursuit of Iraq. Bush aides acknowledge that those "who don't want to see us deal with the threat of Iraq will use [North Korea] as a cudgel" to beat them into a diplomatic solution in the Persian Gulf. So it was President Bush himself who broke his self-imposed weeklong isolation to twice take questions from reporters at his Texas ranch. In a third attempt to explain his foreign policy, this time against a military backdrop, Bush later suggested that Iraq's fate was already settled. "Different circumstances require different strategies--from the pressure of diplomacy to the prospect of force," he told Army troops at Fort Hood. In fact, one senior Bush aide argues that North Korea shows the danger of delaying confrontation with Iraq, proving "how confining our options become" against a nuclear-armed foe.

Perhaps North Korea can wait. International politics is often about timing, and trigger points for action. But different times also call for different leadership styles. The coming period will require a nuanced assessment of risks, and a capacity to see the world clearly as others see it--whether they are friends like South Korea or rivals like China. Bush is right: Saddam and Kim are evil. But now he has to make a more complex case--to Americans, and to an increasingly skeptical world--that each evil must be dealt with on its own terms, and in its own time.

Join the Discussion