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So taken aback was the United States administration by the statement of North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok Joo that it took the Americans 12 days to recover, make it public and issue a response. In the course of routine negotiations concerning U.S. aid to North Korea, between representatives of the administration and senior officials in the government of Kim Jong Il, which have been going on for several years, the deputy foreign minister suddenly disclosed that despite the agreement his country had signed, it had not for one minute abandoned its nuclear weapons program.

Eight years have passed since North Korea signed a pledge to eliminate its nuclear project. Until two weeks ago, the Americans were convinced that the sophisticated pressure policy it had been implemented, which included military threats, was an impressive success. North Korea appeared to have left the nuclear track and to be adhering to its commitments to the U.S. and its neighbors, Japan and South Korea, which were also parties to the agreement. Yet it turned out that the North Koreans had been able to dupe the Americans for eight full years, despite the vast resources U.S. intelligence put into play to keep tabs on matters nuclear in North Korea.

But beyond the embarrassment of the administration, which, apprehensive about opening another front on top of the Iraqi one, has still not succeeded in formulating a clear policy in the face of the new challenge, this affair also contains an extraordinarily important message for the allies of the U.S. - those that are still balking at joining Washington in its struggle against Iraq - and, equally, a message for Israel, too.

Once again, it is plain that a country that is determined can conceal the development of nuclear weapons from the finest Western intelligence agencies. The North Koreans apparently adopted the use of centrifuges for enriching uranium, thus absolving them of the need to rely on nuclear reactors. Even though the materials needed to build centrifuges necessitate large-scale activity throughout the world, Western intelligence services did not detect the acquisitions. The Iraqis, too, moved to the centrifuge method after Israel bombed their nuclear reactor in 1981, and as in the North Korean case, their activity, which went on for many years, was not detected by any espionage organization.

It has also become evident once again that there is no value to such countries affiliating themselves with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty - both North Korea and Iraq are members of the NPT. That fact did not stop Iraq from trying to develop nuclear weapons before the Gulf War, as it is not interfering with the efforts of Iran or, it now turns out, North Korea.

North Korea even went so far as to sign, in 1992, a joint declaration to prevent the nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Cosigned with South Korea, the declaration stated explicitly that the two countries would make use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only and would not develop, manufacture, stockpile or position nuclear weapons. They also committed themselves not to build or purchase facilities for uranium enrichment.

A typical response came from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency, which is responsible for enforcing the NPT. "We simply do not know" what is really going on in connection with North Korea's nuclear program, the agency declared. The last time agency inspectors visited North Korea was in 1994. On the eve of the Gulf War, the agency sent inspectors to Iraq and the report they issued stated that Baghdad was excelling in its fulfillment of the terms of the NPT. Incidentally, the head of the UN agency at that time was Hans Blix, who will head the UN weapons inspection team dispatched to Iraq if a decision to that effect is made. It is doubtful that the person who failed so disgracefully in Iraq in 1990 will succeed in 2002 in his efforts to uncover the Iraqis' nuclear weapons project.

Nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea will radically alter the balance of power in East Asia, just as nuclear weapons in the hands of Iraq will change the balance of power in the Middle East. The extortion ability of North Korea, or Iraq, will grow by leaps and bounds. Regimes like those of Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il are liable to use the blackmailing capability that the possession of nuclear weapons will give them in order to generate dangerous instability, and perhaps will even trigger a military confrontation that will eventuate in an exchange of nuclear strikes. That is the danger that has to be considered by the leaders of Western European countries and by China and Russia, which are members of the Security Council, and are opposed to American military action against Iraq. The surprising admission by North Korea about its ongoing active program to develop nuclear weapons must act as an eye-opener for those who are demanding that the Bush administration supply incontrovertible proof that Iraq has nonconventional weapons as a prior condition for their support of a military strike against the regime of Saddam Hussein.

It is true that the Bush administration is power-driven and ruthless, viewing the world from the perspective of the cowboy who is out to bring law and order to the frontier. That, however, does not mean it is wrong about everything. Bush was perfectly right to name North Korea and Iraq as two of the countries of the "axis of evil." It is a mistake just to take note of the Bush administration's ostensibly simplistic view of the world and not make an effort to discover what underlies it. Kim Jong Il and Saddam Hussein truly constitute a threat to the free world, and sometimes there is no choice but to act with full force against everything they represent.