WASHINGTON -- North Korea's admission that it has a nuclear weapons program poses a huge dilemma for the Bush administration: Does it want to risk two crises by following the same hard line on Pyongyang that it has staked out for Baghdad?
On the surface, the accusations against North Korea and Iraq sound the same. Both are hostile to the United States and seek weapons of mass destruction in defiance of international agreements. The United States is ready to go to war to make Iraq change its behavior. With North Korea, the administration is pursing a diplomatic solution.
Military analysts say war with North Korea would be far more dangerous than with Iraq. It could cost tens of thousands of U.S. lives and alienate Russia, China, South Korea and Japan.
Furthermore, experts disagree about North Korea's motives.
While hawks in the administration and on Capitol Hill saw the disclosure as an expression of belligerence, others saw it as a sign -- if a clumsy one -- that the reclusive state was attempting to engage in more bargaining with Washington. They cited recent overtures by the cash-starved nation to improve ties with the outside world.
''If you take the hardline approach, it complicates everything,'' said Bill Taylor, director of military and political studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. ''Just because we may end up having to use military force against Iraq doesn't mean that we have to use the same approach toward Korea and Iran.''
Bush lumped Iraq, Iran and North Korea together as an ''axis of evil,'' a characterization that may be complicating efforts to treat them differently.
''Some thought he went too far. I think this demonstrates that he knew what he was talking about,'' said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. ''I think it's critical that, over the next several days, the administration come down very hard on North Korea and not draw distinctions between this regime and regimes like that of Saddam Hussein and others with which we have equal concerns.''
The administration, quick to beat the war drums on Iraq, was in no rush to a military confrontation with North Korea.
Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan said Bush found the disclosure ''troubling, sobering news'' but wanted to address it through diplomatic channels. ''We seek a peaceful solution,'' McClellan said.
A senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is trying to figure out what motivated North Korea to acknowledge the program -- suggesting it may be a sign its leaders are looking to deal.
However, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had a different take on North Korea's statement. ''I don't see how anyone could say that's a good sign,'' he said.
North Korea confirmed its nuclear program when challenged by visiting U.S. diplomats earlier this month. The activity breached a 1994 agreement for North Korea to halt its nuclear weapons program in return for foreign aid.
The Bush administration sent envoys to the region to consult with allies and called on North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to reverse course. ''We will watch and see if they do that,'' State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said Thursday.
Leaders of Japan and South Korea reacted to North Korea's admission with concern -- but also urged caution.
A spokesperson for Tony Blair, the staunchest U.S. ally on confronting Iraq, noted that North Korea acknowledged having nuclear weapons while Iraq steadfastly denies it. The disarming of Saddam Hussein is not negotiable, he said.
The United States already knew that North Korea had reprocessed enough plutonium before 1994 for one or two plutonium-based nuclear weapons. U.S. officials said intelligence over the summer showed abundant evidence that Pyongyang also had a uranium-enrichment program.
Pyongyang's admission opens it to international diplomatic pressure while ''bargaining with Iraq is totally futile,'' suggested Robert Einhorn, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration and a nuclear proliferation expert.
Einhorn and other analysts noted that North Korea has one of the world's largest armies and has deployed thousands upon thousands of artillery pieces along the Demilitarized Zone -- just a short distance north of the populous South Korean capital of Seoul. It also has missiles that can reach Japan and beyond.
''There's nothing we can do in the case of North Korea to keep it from doing very, very serious damage,'' Einhorn said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the administration so far has ''taken the right approach in pursuing a peaceful solution and pursuing it through diplomacy.
''There is no other viable option on the Korean peninsula,'' Kimball said.
Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.
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