N. Korea vs. Iraq: Why US Response Differs ; Pyongyang Has Not Yet Responded to Washington's New Offer to Talk over Crisis

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Iraq's Saddam Hussein rules a desert kingdom with a potential to make atom bombs. Fellow dictator Kim Jong Il of North Korea, by contrast, has two nuclear programs, and possibly a couple of bombs.

To disarm Mr. Hussein - who has admitted UN inspectors - some 200,000 US troops are shipping to the Gulf this week on a mission that may last years. Yet even after North Korea kicked out UN inspectors and issued war threats, the White House this week backed away from a policy not to talk with "Dear Leader" Kim.

North Korea said Thursday it would delay a planned meeting with South Korea. And as of this writing, it had not responded to Washington's invitation to talk.

The resulting standoff is shaping North Korea into a major friction point in Asia that will test the region's stability. Kim's unexpected capacity to escalate tensions - and whispers in Washington that bombmaking ability makes Kim more dangerous than Hussein - has fueled the question: why Iraq and not North Korea?

Here in wintry South Korea, the logic of not taking military action is clear: Kim's thousands of artillery tubes could quickly turn Seoul into toast and endanger 37,000 US troops stationed in the country. North Korea also has missile technology with guidance systems accurate enough reach targets in Japan.

Yet beyond these basic differences, experts point to a laundry list of reasons why, despite a recent history of trickery and a violation of treaties by both states - the North presents a different picture from that of Iraq.

There is, for one thing, no "South Iraq." There is, however, a South Korea, whose leaders have a "go-slow" policy of engaging the North that differs markedly from the approach of the Bush team. Also unlike Iraq, North Korea does not abut geographically sensitive oil routes depended on by the world for energy. Nor has Kim invaded any neighbors lately, while Hussein's Army laid waste to part of Kuwait in 1990.

The main characters, Hussein and Kim, are themselves very different. Hussein, sometimes called irrational, has in the past flouted the West to buff his image in the Gulf region. Kim, despite his high-heel shoes, Don King-style hair, and odd history of kidnapping film actresses, is viewed as a rational actor - continuing the policy of his father, Kim Il Sung, who, after the cold war and the abandonment of allies Russia and China, sought to make a deal with the US to assure the survival of his regime at all cost.

"Kim is a rational actor who has been backed into a corner," says Scott Snyder of the Asia Foundation in Seoul. "He has demonstrated internal consistency and logic in his approach. If you are an absolute leader on top of a failing system, and you are focused on survival, there is a reason to obtain a nuclear chip. It may not be constructive to US interests, but it is reasonable from a North Korean perspective."

To be sure, both Iraq and North Korea are repressive and closed, fatefully grouped as "axis of evil" members. Both produce dangerous bioweapons that can be exported. …