As if the Bush administration were not busy enough already, Undersecretary of State John Bolton has said that North Korea should “draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq.”  That followed a comment from President George W. Bush that, if Washington’s efforts “don’t work diplomatically, they’ll have to work militarily.”

Hopes for the former have risen and fallen, as talks have alternated with threats.  New negotiations are planned, but there is no guarantee that they will yield a more positive result.  Indeed, North Korea might only be stalling for time; in any case, she is not close to agreeing to dismantle her nuclear-weapons program and accept outside inspections.

Before Washington again brandishes the stick of war, it must recognize that North Korea is not Iraq.  A military strike almost certainly means full-scale war on the Korean peninsula, with massive casualties and widespread devastation.

North Korea is thought to possess one or two nuclear weapons—or at least has reprocessed enough plutonium to make them.  After being confronted by the United States last October for cheating on the 1994 Agreed Framework, she has taken a series of provocative steps, including reopening her mothballed nuclear plant in Yongbyon and preparing to reprocess—if she has not already done so—8,000 spent fuel rods to produce plutonium.

North Korea probably chose the current path for several reasons.  Nuclear capability is the only reason nations pay any attention to an otherwise bankrupt, irrelevant state.  So far, the nuclear option also has been useful in eliciting bribes.

Moreover, developing a nuclear arsenal may be the surest route to ensuring that the United States does not attack in the future.  After Serbia and now Iraq, any country might find herself in Uncle Sam’s sites: Having an atomic arsenal will likely cause Washington to avert its gaze.

A decade ago, many American policy-makers and pundits blithely talked about military options for destroying the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon and other nuclear facilities.  Today, many people—including, it would seem, President Bush—are making the same calculations.

For instance, former Gen. John Singlaub and Adm. Thomas Moorer are pushing a military option.  Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy is slightly more reticent: “The purpose is not to make the military option inevitable but to build the pressure to produce a diplomatic alternative.”  Columnist Charles Krauthammer believes that the United States had no choice but to wait until Iraq is finished: “We simply cannot handle two military crises at once.”  After Iraq, “temporary appeasement” should end.

This may be the private position of President Bush, who previously indicated that “all options are on the table,” including military action.  The Pentagon has released unsubtle statements that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is “immersed” in the issue.  Rumsfeld has also called North Korea a “terrorist regime,” which is perhaps the most obvious justification for attack.

Indeed, it is hard to find anyone who speaks with administration officials off the record who believes war with North Korea is not a real possibility.  An unnamed military official told the New York Times that military options were being discussed: “We’ve been talking about a lot of very ugly scenarios that could play out in the next few weeks.”  And the Far Eastern Economic Review reports that “A prominent Asian academic tells the Review that not one of the senior administration officials he met with recently would rule out military action to remove North Korea’s nuclear threat.”

Seymour Hersh, writing in the New Yorker, quotes an intelligence official:

Bush and Cheney want [Kim Jong Il’s] head on a platter.  Don’t be distracted by all this talk about negotiations.  There will be negotiations, but they have a plan, and they are going to get this guy after Iraq.  He’s their version of Hitler.

It is not surprising that policymakers in Seoul, within easy reach of North Korean artillery and Scud missiles, have a different perspective.  Officials in Beijing, Moscow, and Tokyo also worry about radioactive fallout, missile attacks, refugee flows, economic turmoil, and regional chaos.  There is no one anywhere in the region—even among the countries most vulnerable to a North Korea with nuclear weapons—that is in favor of war.

South Korea is particularly adamant.  As then-President-elect Roh Moo-hyun explained, “It is impossible not to have differences [with the United States], and I cannot agree to attacking North Korea.”  During a campaign debate, candidate Roh declared: “For Washington, their prime interest lies in getting rid of weapons of mass destruction to restore the world order, but for us it’s a matter of survival.”

Former State Department official Jed Babbin argues:

If the nuclear weapons program continues, we should consider an Osirak-like strike at the Yongbyon plant which is the center of North Korea’s program.  It’s quite possible to do that without beginning a general war.

Ralph Cossa, head of the Pacific Forum CSIS, contends that, since the survival of his regime is Kim Jong Il’s highest goal, Kim would not risk destruction by retaliating.

Others propose coupling a military strike with the use or threat of tactical nuclear weapons against North Korean conventional forces.  To attack and assume North Korea would not respond, however, would be a wild gamble.  First, a military strike might not destroy all of Pyongyang’s nuclear assets; hitting the reprocessing facility and spent fuel rods could create radioactive fallout over China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea.

Second, if the Kim Jong Il regime did not respond, its prestige would be gone.  Given the official U.S. policy of preemption, the designation of North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” and the recent offensive against Iraq for aspiring to build a nuclear weapon, Pyongyang might decide that even a limited military strike is the opening phase of a war for regime change.  In that case, it would make sense to roll the tanks in order to begin hostilities at the time of its choosing.  This is certainly how Pyongyang is threatening to respond to any U.S. strike.

Bill Taylor, formerly of West Point and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who met with Kim Il-Sung and other senior North Korea leaders a decade ago, believes that “faced with a major military strike on its territory, the North Korean leadership will respond with everything it has against Americans and our allies who fall within range of their weapons.”  South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jun said simply: “[I]f America attacks North Korea, war on the Korean peninsula will be unavoidable.”

An account by a high-ranking defector, Cho Myung-chul, is particularly sobering.  In analyzing Iraq’s defeat in the first Gulf War, North Korean military officials concluded that Baghdad was too defensive: “If we’re in a war, we’ll use everything.  And if there’s a war, we should attack first, to take the initiative.”  He estimates at 80 percent the chances of general war in response to even a limited strike on Yongbyon.  “Everything” is a daunting force: In addition to a large army, North Korea possesses long-range artillery and rocket launchers, deploys up to 600 Scud missiles and additional longer-range No Dong missiles, and has developed a significant number and range of chemical and, perhaps, biological weapons.  Likely casualties are estimated at one million.

A limited retaliatory strike against America’s Yongsan base in the center of Seoul, accompanied by heavy civilian casualties, is also possible.  The Seoul-Inchon metropolis hosts roughly half of South Korea’s population (some 24 million people), is the nation’s industrial heartland, and is being developed into a regional hub for East Asia.  Pyongyang is thought to be able to fire 300,000 to 500,000 shells per hour into Seoul.

Washington could hardly afford not to respond to an attack on Yongsan, yet retaliation would likely lead to an escalation that would be difficult to halt, short of general war.  Indeed, after striking, North Korea might announce that she is finished, that she unfortunately had to retaliate against the United States but she plans no additional attacks.  However, if the United States struck anew, North Korea would respond again.

Such a scenario might threaten civilian control of the military in Seoul; it would almost certainly set the Korean and American governments at odds.  The perception that South Koreans died because the United States acted against the wishes of the Roh administration would create a divisive, and perhaps decisive, split between Seoul and Washington.

Publicly, at least, President Roh calls claims of a possible American attack “inaccurate and groundless.”  Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun asks: “How can [Washington] ignore or go against South Korea in its North Korea policy?”  Easily, actually, as the Clinton administration proved in planning for war in 1994.

Dealing with North Korea will prove to be one of the most vexing challenges for this and future administrations.  No one should believe that military action offers a simple and safe solution.  Any attempt at military preemption in North Korea almost certainly means a real war of horrific destruction.