About a year ago, the Bush administration began laying the groundwork for war in Iraq with a propaganda offensive based on what now appears to have been a deliberate manipulation of faulty intelligence reports. In recent weeks, there have been a slew of news reports based on leaked intelligence suggesting that North Korea -- another charter member of the president's "axis of evil" -- is galloping full speed toward developing nuclear weapons. Contrary to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card's dictum, August is the month for new product rollouts.
The media offensive has been accompanied by the usual theatrics. The State Department's top arms negotiator is firing off inflammatory rhetoric on a tour of the Far East. Well-placed former officials are pounding war drums along the Potomac. So forgive me for bringing up the fable about the little boy who cried wolf, but is there any reason to heed the drums this time?
Evidence of how seriously official Washington is taking the possibility of opening a northeast Asia front in the hot war on terrorism arrived last Monday in the form of a Wall Street Journal op-ed by former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and three-star-Gen.-turned-FOX-News-commentator Thomas G. McInerney. These two gentlemen, who presumably have a stake in maintaining their professional credibility, lamented "the reflexive rejection in the public debate of the use of force against North Korea."
Even though six-sided talks to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula are about to get under way, the United States should begin planning now for massive air strikes to take out Pyongyang's nuclear facilities and the 11,000-plus artillery pieces along the demilitarized zone, they wrote. Their battle plan after this preemptive air strike includes sending in a couple of U.S. Army divisions alongside the South Korean army to decisively defeat North Korea "in 30 to 60 days." With President Bush off on a 30-day vacation that will be punctuated by the occasional campaign fund raiser, and one to two Americans dying a day in Iraq, you'd think the armchair generals would be a bit more circumspect about condemning the Korean peninsula to what Pyongyang promises will become a "sea of fire" if the United States attacks.
Woolsey and McInerney's avowed goal in writing the article was to get China to flex its muscles and boot North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il from power. They even raised the specter of a nuclear Japan, South Korea and Taiwan unless China moves decisively to end North Korean blackmail.
There's no question that North Korea is a bad actor in this rapidly evolving drama. Kim Jong-Il runs the Hermit Kingdom like a criminal enterprise. His 22 million people are starving. At the end of last year, desperate for renewed aid from the West, he announced to the world that he was reprocessing the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods at the Yongbyon nuclear complex and threw inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) out of the country. Blackmail isn't too strong a word to use for his tactics.
But it's important to remember that we've been here before. Nearly a decade ago, Kim Jong-Il's father, Kim Il Sung, pulled the same trick with the Clinton administration. Clinton sent former President Jimmy Carter to negotiate a temporary truce. North Korea put its nuclear ambitions on hold in exchange for food and energy aid, which it received throughout the 1990s in fits and starts.
However, that shaky agreement collapsed early in the Bush administration when the new president's advisers forsook containment and deliberately snubbed former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung because of his rapprochement policy toward North Korea. When Bush included the North Korean regime in the axis of evil in the wake of September 11, Kim Jong-Il decided his best chance for survival was to once again play the nuclear card.
So what evidence is there that North Korea is moving decisively to develop nuclear weapons and export weapons-grade plutonium? During the 1994 crisis, intelligence reports suggested that Pyongyang had enough plutonium to build two or three bombs. But there is no hard evidence that the bombs exist, and North Korea has never demonstrated its capabilities with a full-blown nuclear test.
Intelligence analysts raise the specter of North Korea exporting nuclear materiel in a suitcase to terrorist groups. But no one has alleged that a terrorist group has put its hands on nuclear materiel, and such a weapon would be almost impossible to catch, even with the quasi-blockade of North Korea that the Bush administration is trying to organize. (The Washington Post reported that 11 nations have signed onto the U.S. interdiction effort, but not China, Russia or South Korea -- the three countries that border the impoverished and isolated North Korea.) Of course, this is a problem that applies to every country with a nuclear-energy program that has surplus fissile materiel sloshing around. The only solution is a beefed up IAEA and aggressive inspections -- precisely the multilateral solution the Bush administration abhors.
Meanwhile, North Korea's greatest export may be its engineers, who are probably anxious to get a decent bite to eat. According to Monday's Los Angeles Times, an entire community of North Korean scientists is now working in Iran on that country's nuclear-energy program, which Western intelligence analysts believe is also moving toward nuclear capability. In addition to its people, North Korea has exported its short- and medium-range missile technology to raise hard currency.
Last month, Pyongyang announced it had completed reprocessing the fuel in its 8,000 spent rods and officially declared its nuclear ambitions. That would be enough plutonium for an additional six to eight bombs. A few weeks later, The New York Times reported that sophisticated chemical monitors along the demilitarized zone had picked up wisps of telltale krypton gas, a byproduct of reprocessing. But computer analysis of the prevailing wind patterns suggested that the gas had come not from Yongbyon, the site of North Korea's current reprocessing facilities, but from another reprocessing plant somewhere else in the country. Still, as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analyst James Wolfsthal pointed out in an article on New Scientist.com, the krypton "is a red flag, not a yardstick." It is entirely possible that North Korea deliberately released the gas to mislead American sensors.
Does North Korea's nuclear blackmail and gas in the wind add up to casus belli? Not if the Japanese, South Korean and Chinese governments have anything to say about it. What they fear most of all is the rapid collapse of North Korea, and the economic hardships that that would impose on their economies. So they continue to push the Bush administration down the path of negotiations, where it has reluctantly and belatedly agreed to go. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry pointed out in early July, containment remains the best hope of keeping Kim Jong-Il in his box. It worked throughout the Clinton years, and it might be working still if the Bush administration had not deliberately deep-sixed the policy.
But for a president whose approval ratings are slipping because of the botched postwar situation in Iraq, that's probably not such a bad state of affairs. Prolonged and occasionally belligerent talks with a rogue regime that may or may not have nukes may be just what Karl Rove needs. Early next year, FOX News commentators like McInerney will be outlining war scenarios under a news logo that claims, "You Cringe, We Decide." In an election year, it sure beats talking about the economy.
Merrill Goozner, a professor of journalism at New York University, is a Prospect contributing editor.