WASHINGTON, Dec. 31 (UPI) -- Listen carefully in the corridors of power in Washington. For as the North Korean nuclear crisis unfolds, you will hearing the security doctrines of left and right, liberal and conservative alike come crashing to the ground.
North Korea's defiant admission that it has been systematically breaking its 1994 nuclear accord over its Yongbyon reactor is a devastating humiliation for the liberal non-proliferation experts who drove policy in the administration of two-term Democratic President Bill Clinton. But it is proving equally devastating for the comfortable assumptions of the neo-conservative hawks who currently have President George W. Bush's ear, and who have been driving policy on Iraq.
It is ironic that the hawks dominating the Bush administration remain so confident about confronting Iraq and even toppling its government, For they appear to have been taken by surprise and be even at a loss in dealing with the far more isolated and remote rulers of North Korea. But the problems they face there are real ones, and they now appear as intractable to Republican, conservative "tough" solutions as to liberal Democratic "soft" ones.
It is especially ironic that even when the Bush administration says it is acting "tough" towards Pyongyang, that toughness takes the form of a much touted plan to bring diplomatic and economic pressure to bear. Had any Bill Clinton or Al Gore administration taken that approach, every neo-conservative pundit in America would have been on his high horse accusing them of being ineffectual wimps.
And even that plan bit the dust Monday in the most humiliating way when President Kim Dae-jung of South Korea, the nation that U.S. aggressive policies are supposed to protect, shot it down.
"Pressure and isolation have never been successful with Communist countries," Kim, who steps down from office on Feb. 25, told his Cabinet in remarks reported Tuesday in The New York Times: "... We cannot go to war with North Korea and we can't go back to the cold war system and extreme confrontation."
The North's revelations and open defiance, even contempt, for the Bush administration on the nuclear issue could not have come at a more sensitive time for them. Senior Bush officials, especially in the National Security Council, the office of powerful Vice President Dick Cheney and in the Department of Defense have been energetically pushing ahead with their plans to invade Iraq if it fails to comply with the United States' demands about exposing and scrapping its weapons of mass destruction.
But now, the new confrontation with massively armed North Korea has raised the specter of the Untied States possibly having to fight two major land wars simultaneously at opposite ends of Asia with enemies both armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week that the U.S. government was both ready and able to fight two such conflicts simultaneously. But Anthony Cordesman of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the most experienced and respected military analysts in America, disagrees bluntly -- and publicly -- with that assessment.
In a new paper for CSIS, Cordesman concluded, "The U.S. could fight (a full-scale war in the Korean peninsula) in the event of a two-war contingency like Iraq but would face serious problems and simply does not have the 'low density' assets to fight such a war with anything like the effectiveness it can fight a one-contingency conflict."
Events this week suggest that behind Rumsfeld's bluster, other cooler heads in the Bush administration have come to the same conclusion. For on Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a series of television interviews that Washington wanted to renew its dialogue with Pyongyang, a significant softening of previous U.S. confrontational rhetoric towards the reclusive leaders of the so-called Hermit Kingdom.
"We have channels open, we have ways of communicating with the North Koreans," Powell said. "They know how to contact us."
And on Monday, State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker took an even more dovish approach to Pyongyang. The Bush administration had no plans currently to reimpose economic sanctions on North Korea despite the widespread fears that it might be reactivating its nuclear program, he said.
"I don't think anybody has suggested at this point imposing sanctions," he told reporters at a briefing.
The low-key U.S. approach was in striking contrast to the administration's continued gung-ho, far more confrontational dealings with Iraq and its ruler President Saddam Hussein. Saddam has, at least publicly and superficially, complied with United Nations inspectors who are touring his country seeking evidence of illegal work to develop weapons of mass destruction.
North Korea, by contrast, last week unilaterally removed monitoring devices that the International Atomic Energy Agency had installed at the Yongbyon reactor. The IAEA later reported that North Korean officials had also removed some of the 4,000 nuclear fuel rods that the agency had put in storage. These can be reprocessed into plutonium that can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The neo-conservative superhawks who shape policy towards Iraq in the Pentagon and in key positions in the State Department and the National Security Council have made no secret of their conviction that militarily toppling Saddam is essential as an object lesson to deter other rogue states in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world from developing their own weapons of mass destruction.
But North Korea's bold, even contemptuous public defiance of the Bush administration over the Yongbyon reactor appears to be standing that conservative conventional wisdom on its head. Precisely because the United States now appears committed to focusing its military forces in the Middle East to take down Saddam, Pyongyang's leaders appear to have judged this a propitious moment to announce their own nuclear defiance of Washington. And so far at least, their bold gamble appears to be paying off.
And what kind of object lesson would toppling Saddam be if every rogue state around the world could then still look to North Korea as "the one that got away" because it already had its own credible nuclear deterrent threat to defy Washington?
For more than a decade Pentagon nuclear strategists have had a name for this kind of deterrence calculation. They call it "nuclear bee-sting" theory. It means that Third World or "rogue state" leaders believe the threat of having a single nuclear weapon that could destroy an American city or of kill tens or hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in the field would be sufficient to deter any major U.S. military action against them.
Such calculations are not unique to either Iraq or North Korea. Right after the 1991 Gulf War, when India's then-chief of staff was asked privately by some American interlocutors what strategic lessons should be drawn from the rapid and overwhelming U.S. victory over Iraq, he replied, "Make sure you have your own atomic bomb before you challenge the United States."
And one of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's top national security advisers later said, "This is not fantasy. Nuclear bee-sting theory is very real. The Americans are treating it this way. And so are we."
Pentagon insiders have told UPI that concern about "taking out" Saddam before he can achieve his dream of nuclear capability is a major factor in the administration's hawks' determination to confront him now. But instead of averting the nightmare of a rogue, unpredictable Third World state arming itself with weapons of mass destruction, their policy now appears to have accelerated the very nightmare it was meant to prevent.
As Cordesman of CSIS warned in his paper, "North Korea is a symptom of a much broader and ongoing global crisis in proliferation. ... The fact is that many nations are acting to offset the U.S. advantage in conventional weapons thorough proliferation (of weapons of mass destruction)."
This nightmare -- of a Third World rogue state armed with catastrophic nuclear or biological "bee-sting" weapons -- has now become a reality. None of the old solutions appears to work anymore. And there are no new ones in sight, either.
That is the dilemma that now confronts Washington's policy-makers, blocking their dreams of continued unipolar global domination. And it is not going to go away soon.
(The second in a five-part series that looks at the dispute between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang's nuclear program. Next: Why South Korea split from Bush.)