The Washington Times

A common refrain at year’s end from the nyah-nyah school of criticism of the Bush administration is that here they are all set to go to war over Iraq’s possible possession of weapons of mass destruction, and then along comes North Korea announcing it has a nuclear-weapons program and the administration does nothing. Isn’t this hypocrisy of the rankest sort? What happened to the president who talked about the “axis of evil”? And doesn’t the downplaying of North Korea lend credence to skepticism about military adventures against Iraq?

If I thought that the administration had already done all that it intends to do about North Korea and its nuclear-weapons program, I too would be plenty skeptical about the administration’s seriousness. But in fact, it’s ridiculous to conclude that we are anywhere but at the beginning of dealing with the North Korea problem. For eight years, policy toward North Korea has been based on the illusion of its compliance with the terms of the “Agreed Framework,” in which Pyongyang foreswore its nuclear ambitions in exchange for aid. Only since October has there been essential clarity about what North Korea’s true intentions are.

Iraq and its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, by contrast, is a subject that has been of concern at least since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, and the thinking on which intensified abruptly following September 11. That is more than a year ago. That the administration should have had the North Korea matter resolved by New Year’s is in fact a rather cheeky proposition.

If there is a point on which this administration [and the previous one] are vulnerable, it is this: What if the North Koreans had kept mum? At what point [if any] would U.S. intelligence have been able to provide convincing evidence that North Korea’s nuclear program was indeed proceeding? The question becomes all the more relevant given the surprise that greeted India’s nuclear tests in 1998. The cases are hardly parallel in terms of the threat posed to world order, but they have in common the revelation of a nuclear-weapons program by the proliferator itself, not the discovery of such programs by any other government or international body.

The administration is also taking criticism for its unwillingness to talk to Pyongyang. Secretary of State Colin Powell – whose diplomatic inclination and skills, contrary to much hawkish opinion in Washington, are a huge asset to a generally hawkish administration – made the rounds Sunday to explain: “We cannot suddenly say, ‘Gee we’re so scared. Let’s have a negotiation because we want to appease your misbehavior.’ This kind of action cannot be rewarded.”

For the moment, all Mr. Powell was really doing was urging North Korea to change course. They should “come to their senses,” he said. “This is a country that’s in desperate condition. What are they going to do with another two or three more nuclear weapons when they’re starving, when they have no energy, when they have no economy that’s functioning?”

Again, if that’s all there is – an exhortation for North Korea to change -we have a problem. But there is no reason to think that’s all there is.

What next? North Korea has told inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to go home. It’s quite clear that the administration wants the IAEA to bring the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

Now, ordinarily, I would not regard that as cause for celebration. Except that the Security Council is a different place from what it was a year or even six months ago, thanks in large measure to the deft diplomacy of the United States and to the way in which the other permanent members, especially France, have risen to the occasion. The unanimous vote demanding Iraqi disarmament marked the moment at which the Security Council could claim for itself an indisputable seriousness.

The Iraq vote is also a potential model for dealing with North Korea. In the Iraq case, the French are proudest of having changed the terms in which the U.S. talked about the Saddam Hussein problem: from “regime change” to the necessity to disarm – actual disarmament, as verified by an intrusive inspection regime, or else the prospect of being disarmed for failure to comply with the terms of the resolution. What does North Korea represent but another instance of the necessity to disarm? If the International Atomic Energy Agency doesn’t bring forth a robust case concerning North Korea’s defiance, what credibility will the agency have? And if the Security Council fails to respond to this dangerous situation equally as seriously as it finally took the Iraq problem, the Security Council would only undermine its newly-won credibility.

The Bush administration’s task now is to motivate the international community to take North Korea seriously. The question is simply this: Is it acceptable for this uniquely strange totalitarian state, a failure by any international measure, to possess nuclear weapons? The French will not say “yes.”