11 JANUARY 2003, Page 18


Mark Steyn dismisses European sneering,

but says that Bush must act soon to avert disaster

New Hampshire WHAT's up with North Korea? Your guess is as good as mine and probably rather better than Kim Jong-Il's. Even if you figure out a rational reason for why he's chosen this particular time to play nuclear brinkmanship, it's unlikely, by its very rationality, to be his reason.

Nonetheless, it's merely the latest gift to those in the West opposed to war with Iraq. Whether or not the 'axis of evil' holds regular board meetings, there does seem to be a remarkable amount of interdepartmental co-ordination. For a year now, whenever the Americans look set to take on Saddam, some fortuitous diversion has come along: last spring's ferocious intensification of the Palestinian intifada, Crown Prince Abdullah's entirely fictitious peace plan, and now North Korea's nuclear capability. The idea, eagerly taken up by the West's many Saddamites, is that Iraq is something you never get around to: oh, no, you gotta put Baghdad on the back burner till you solve the Palestinian question, North Korea's nuclear stand-off, the East Midlands borough council reorganisation crisis, whatever.

Well, Baghdad's been on the back burner for a year now. The war has lost all momentum and both America's serious enemies and her knockabout disparagers have been emboldened. If Saddam had been toppled to the cheers of a grateful populace last spring, among other consequences Yasser would be out of office, the ayatollahs would be packing, the House of Saud would be feeling the squeeze of lower oil prices, Boy Assad would have changed course so fast he might actually merit that invite to tea with the Queen, and the European anti-war movement would not have swollen inexorably in inverse proportion to the amount of actual war. Whether Kim Jong-II would still have decided to go in for a couple of rounds of No Dong braggadocio is harder to say. (No Dong's the name of his missile, by the way.) But in doing so he's given endless pleasure to the legions of anti-American Europeans and anti-Bush Democrats, all now solemnly huffing about the Inconsisten cies' of the President's approach to the axis of evil: why is Bush so hot for war with Iraq, which hasn't yet got weapons of mass destruction, but not with North Korea, which already has? It's obvious that Pyongyang's the bigger threat but that Bush can't get over Saddam because he wants to avenge his father, seize the oil, blah blah blab.

Oh, come on. I know nothing's happened for 12 months and we pundits are staggering around punchily landing ever feebler blows on each other, but this argument is pathetic. The time to stop Saddam is before he gets nukes. Once he's got 'ern, it's over. Kim Jong-ll is no threat at all, at least not to the United States. He could conceivably have an advanced Dong capable of hitting San Diego, but, if it ever did, it would be the last thing he or anybody else in North Korea ever did. If Psycho Boy really feels the need to fire his Dong at someone, Tokyo or Vancouver would be far more interesting targets: how would a non-nuclear power respond? A strong resolution at the UN?

But the only damage he can do to America he's mostly already done. In the eight years since Bill Clinton and Nobel Peanut Prize winner Jimmy Carter brokered their 'breakthrough—agreement' with North Korea, Pyongyang has been enormously

'helpful' to Iran's and Pakistan's nuclear programmes. Had Pakistan still been in the hands of Nawaz Sharif, last year's nuke stand-off with India might have gone very differently. Iran is on its way to a No Dong capable of hitting Israel, and, as Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of those famous Iranian moderates, has said, the day the Muslim world gets a deliverable nuclear weapon the Israeli question will be settled for ever. And, of course, these are only the clients of Pyongyang that we know about. North Korea is an economic basket-case with nothing to sell but its Dong. It seems reasonable to assume that several well-funded freelances — the 'non-state actors', as they say — have also made their pilgrimage to Pyongyang.

It would be interesting to see Kim Jong-II's shipping invoices, but that's about the only real stake America has in North Korea. Next time anyone goes on about the 'inconsistencies' of Bush's approach to Baghdad and Pyongyang, pull out an atlas. Iraq is a big shot in a region of turbulent flop states; North Korea is a pitiful little freak show surrounded by world powers and economic success stories. Saddam is the new Saladin, an inspiration to millions of Arab males in Syria, Jordan, Saudi and the Palestinian Authority; nobody in South Korea, China, Russia or Japan wants to be like Kim Jong-II or have anything to do with his parochial, irrelevant, unexportable Juche' ideology. On Wall Street in the old greed-is-good days, they used to call hotshot traders BSDs — Big Swinging Dongs. That's what Saddam is: the Big Swinging Dong of Araby. And, say what you like, it seems to impress George Galloway. By contrast, North Korea is literally the No Dong state. Take a look at a satellite picture of the peninsula by night: South Korea ablaze in electric light, the North in darkness. In Far East Asia, North Korea's the hole in the doughnut.

Saddam wants weapons of mass destruction in order to cow his immediate neighbours and neuter some more distant ones, such as Europe — by 'neuter', I mean that the EU's present theoretically reversible vasectomy vis-à-vis Iraq would be turned into full-scale castration. In so far as he's burning to nuke anyone, it's Israel; and he'll give that one some thought before pressing the button. He might support some rogue terrorists with plans to hit the US, if he thought he could get away with it.

Kim Jong-II's psycho state, on the other hand, is a pipsqueak in the shadow of two big-time nuclear players, China and Russia. It has no hope of regional dominance. Its conventional forces — an army reliant on aging weaponry with few spare parts — couldn't seriously threaten the south with invasion and occupation. All Pyongyang could do is drop the big one on Seoul — if it decided it wanted to go out like those New Hampshire crazies in the last months of winter who get the cabin fever so bad they can't take being shut up with the missus any longer and blow her away and then themselves.

Assuming that even Kim Jong-I1 isn't that nuts, what we have is a Cold War backwater trying to reinvent itself. Its neighbours — South Korea, Japan and China — have grown rich by making export products designed to appeal to Western consumerism. Kim figures North Korea can grow rich by making export products designed to appeal to Islamic terrorists and rogue states. How lucrative this speciality mail-order market is remains to be seen, but its long-term growth potential must be in doubt. For the most part, Kim would be selling his cut-price Dongs to groups who are anxious to use them. The moment they do, and the provenance is traced, North Korea's role as quartermaster to the world's wackos will be over. In the Middle East, nukes would elevate Saddam to invulnerability. In North Korea, they're the death spasm of a state with no raison d'être. Saddam has viable ambitions. Kim doesn't.

That's why the EU schadenfreude set may be wrong to assume that the present public face of the Bush administration — its 'nonchalance', as my fellow Canadian David Warren puts it — is an unconvincing pose beneath which everyone's in a state of blind panic. I don't think so. North Korea is a temporary problem that may offer some long-term benefits to the US. Hardly anyone in Washington is enthusiastic about the present massive troop commitment to South Korea, a 50year-old ceasefire preserved in aspic, a M*A'S*H rerun that never ends. Plenty of ingrates in the South want the Yanks out. The Chinese and Russians are pally with Seoul these days, and, judging from his offer to 'mediate' between the US and the North. the South's new unfriendly President Roh doesn't seem to understand that Uncle Sam's there to defend him and for no other reason. For some years now, the Americans have been stuck in the middle getting screwed by Koreans North and South. Given the antipathy of their Southern hosts, those 37,000 US troops serve no useful purpose except as potential nuclear hostages in the event that the North decides to go for the big one.

Once you start looking at the broader picture, the obvious question is: why should the US be the point man on Korea anyway? Given that there's a sporting chance that some of those long-range Dongs will be used in certain troublesome Russian republics, Moscow has as great an interest as Washington in putting the squeeze on Pyongyang. True, China, which recently shipped 20 tons of tributyl phosphate to North Korea for extracting plutonium from their stockpile of spent reactor fuel, seems noticeably reluctant to apply any pressure to its neighbour. But, if

they're that relaxed about nuclear proliferation in their backyard, then, as the Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer suggests. Washington should toss 'em a wild card: how about a nuclear Japan?

In other words, the US should use this crisis to its advantage. It needs fewer infantrymen hunkered down among the landmines in the DMZ and more ships tracking suspicious cargo heading west. But, in a more general sense, it also needs to disentangle itself from non-essential issues and leave them on some other folks' plates. Unfortunately. Washington now has a timing problem: it would look like a capitulation to pull troops out of the constrained timewarp of the DMZ, unless such a withdrawal were agreed, say, a week after Saddam was blown to pieces in his bunker. Inaction in Korea is only a problem because of a year of inaction everywhere else.

A couple of weeks back in this space, I made a passing reference to `rope-a-dope' — the much promoted theory under which the administration's apparent lethargy this last year is all part of some cunning bluff. Even if it were true, a man like Kim Jong-II reminds us of the perils of this approach: crazy as he is, it's unlikely he'd be crying 'Look at me! Over here, you moronic cowboy!' if Bush had already killed Saddam and set in motion the remaking of the Middle East. The 13 months since the liberation of Afghanistan allowed Kim to figure that the US isn't serious. When Saddam looks out the window and sees Hans Blix motoring around in his UN minibus, he concludes likewise. So do Hamas and Hezbollah. And those ill-disciplined Pakistani border guards who fired on US troops the other day. And the al-Qa'eda sleepers in Amsterdam and London and Montreal. And all the other likely customers of Kim's going-for-a-Dong discount warehouse.

Every month that passes without the Americans using force against Iraq increases North Korea's potential client list. That's the linkage, and the deterioration in perception this last year is at least as damaging as any actual capability in Pyongyang's arsenal. If Saddam's still in power by May, the world's in big trouble.