Last October, North Korea announced that it has a nuclear-weapons program.  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld confirmed that North Korea already has a “small number” of nuclear weapons, and a Pentagon official later added that the United States thought Pyongyang had two nuclear bombs.

The stunning revelations sent shockwaves around the world, but the White House reaction was surprisingly restrained.  Spokesman Scott McClellan said “We are seeking a peaceful solution.  This is best addressed through diplomatic channels at this point.”  McClellan then went on to describe Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a “homicidal dictator who is addicted to weapons of mass destruction.”  He did not comment on allegations that North Korea is also pursuing chemical and biological weapons programs.

This is all very curious.  Suppose that you, a super wealthy and powerful homesteader in a mansion on a hill, have some conflicts with two unruly gang leaders from the wrong side of the tracks.  One is Middle Eastern; the other, Oriental.  One gang leader is said to “gas his own people.”  The other starves his charges to death, in the name of self-sufficiency.

The former, a nasty brute with no powerful backers, tried to take over one of your clients’ properties a decade ago, assuming that it was OK with you.  Once you changed your mind about that, you taught him a lesson that was—you now claim—not memorable enough.  He is still around, cornered in his seedy abode, but he is powerless to threaten you.  As you go into extraordinary paroxysms of rage about his alleged transgressions, he wonders what he needs to do to stay out of your way.  Even if he did dream of getting back at you, he has no means to do so now, and there is no likelihood of his acquiring some in the coming decades.

The other gang leader is a far nastier piece of work.  He is hell-bent on acquiring serious weapons of mass destruction—in fact, he already has some and wants to use the hardware as a tool in his dealings with you and your allies.

So what do you do?

If you follow George Washington’s advice, you stick to your side of the track (well armed, to be sure) and let the bad guys over there do their thing—whatever unpleasantness it might entail for their subjects and their unlucky neighbors—as long as they stay off of your turf.

Ah, but you like being the boss.  If you are serious about being the only sheriff in town, however, you will prioritize and go after your chief rival first.  You declare the rules; you define the consequences.  Having, or actively seeking, “weapons of mass destruction” invites blind, automatic retaliation—nothing personal.

On the other hand, if you are a coward or a fraud, or if your priorities are determined by someone else, you will go after the softer target.  In other words, you will pretend that Kim Jong Il is the lesser threat—he has “only” two nukes, after all—while Saddam Hussein remains the real rogue.  And so President Bush described the North Korean admission merely as “troubling and sobering.”

His statement was puzzling.  Mr. Bush included North Korea in the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address last January.  If he was serious about the threat posed by this dangerous rogue nation, what is so “troubling and sobering” about North Korea’s recent admission?

It seems that last winter’s “axis of evil” was purely rhetorical after all, its pecking order dependent on expediency.  Saddam—the real target all along—is a secularist dictator who appeals to the Baathist variety of Arab nationalism but whose vanity and ambition guarantee that he will get no external support when the going gets tough.

North Korea, by contrast is a zany neo-Stalinist hell on Earth, whose minimal external connections go only as far as Beijing.  President Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric, however, sought not to describe reality but to blur it.  How inconvenient, then, that one of the evil triumvirate has proved to be seriously demented.  In a pragmatic and non-ideological scheme of things, assorted North Korean sites should become more attractive targets for Cruise missiles, airborne assaults, and special operations than Baghdad or Basra.

The Bush administration, however, continues to minimize the North Korean threat.  For Bush’s team, there is no predictable correlation between a genuine threat to national security and its processing through the decision-making machinery.  Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz will not allow national-security threats to get in the way of their grand Middle Eastern designs, so the North Korean bombshell must be ignored.  Washington’s uncertainty is reflected in the long delay between Undersecretary James Kelly’s briefing on the program when he visited Pyongyang on October 3 and the announcement by the State Department almost a fortnight later.

Scarcely less alarming was Pyongyang’s claim, reported by U.S. officials in early October, that North Korea also has unspecified “more powerful” weapons—probably chemical and biological—as all of its neighbors and most weapons-proliferation specialists have long believed.  Nevertheless, we are still told that the war against Iraq is a must.  No new facts from the outer fringes of the Orient will be allowed to disrupt the Iraqi war scheme.

The North Korean revelation was not an “admission” but a calculated warning: “Don’t try with us what you’re doing with Saddam.”  Perhaps Comrade Kim is not demented at all—in fact, it seems that his timing was exquisite, with U.S. military forces headed for the Persian Gulf.  The United States simply cannot fight on both fronts at once.

We will have the Marines in the streets of Baghdad before winter is out.  Meanwhile, there will be a Fat Boy or two in North Korea’s arsenal, out of America’s sight and mind, a mere 60 seconds away from tens of thousands of American troops on the southern side of the border.  Saddam may have a hearty posthumous laugh.