04 October 2003
Illegal weapons of mass destruction have been found - only they are in North Korea, not Iraq. This week's warning from the North Korean deputy foreign minister that his country is producing enough weapons-grade plutonium for six nuclear warheads may be a bluff - like Saddam Hussein's evasiveness - but it is a more credible threat than anything offered by the Iraqi former dictator.
It is not, of course, primarily a threat to us in the West, just as Saddam was not. And it is noticeable that the South Koreans and the Japanese - while not exactly happy about this kind of missile-rattling - are calmer about the threat than the Americans.
The lesson of the Iraq war is not that the world should be insouciant about the threat from rogue states and terrorists; it is, rather, that it should base its priorities on facts and not on wild conjectures. We cannot know whether or not North Korea is really capable of making nuclear weapons, and no one is going to place much faith in a dossier produced by either the American or British intelligence services. It is quite likely that Kim Jong Il's military machine is as hollowed out as was Saddam's. Certainly his people suffer even greater deprivation and repression. But the logic of President Bush's attitude to uncertainty is curious. The fact that Iraq might have had weapons of mass destruction made the case for pre-emptive military action; the fact that North Korea may have nuclear weapons seems to make the case against it.
Just as well. It is only a pity that, with his ill-judged talk of an "axis of evil", George Bush has scuppered the South Korean policy - backed by his predecessor, Bill Clinton - of engagement.
As with Iran - that other member of the axis - the policy of dialogue and trade is more promising than isolation and hostile words which are not (yet) backed up by military force.
The North Korean state is likely to collapse soon enough; the aim of its neighbours and the rest of the world must be to try to limit the death and destruction which will accompany it.