And now, the next American war

Just when you thought the horizon was cloudless, a new conflict is coming to a head. The Pentagon ha

If there is one thing about the bloodshed in Iraq that has surprised me, it is that North Korea has not seized the opportunity to shoot down a US plane - or do something equally provocative at a time when America's attentions are on the new spectator sport of war. For almost since January last year, when George Bush pronounced North Korea to be one of three countries comprising his "axis of evil", the rhetoric between the Bush administration and perhaps the world's most hermetic and oddball government has been heating up. And while the Iraqi people have been shocked and awed into their liberation, so the escalation of dangers over North Korea has been happening almost unnoticed.

Few noticed President Bush's 3 March assertion on North Korea, for example, that if American policies "don't work diplomatically, they'll have to work militarily". Donald Rumsfeld, never one to shirk military machospeak, said that North Korea had better understand that the US was quite capable of fighting two wars at once. North Korea was due to be the subject of a UN Security Council meeting on 9 April - the very act of which, a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman said, was "a prelude to war" and "a grave provocation intended to scuttle all [North Korea's] effort for dialogue and aggravate the situation on the Korean peninsula". In January, North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, effective from 10 April.

In recent weeks, North Korea launched two missiles into the Sea of Japan. Last month, too, a pair of North Korean jet fighters tried to intercept and force down a US reconnaissance plane flying over the same stretch of sea. Kim Jong Il, wearing his trademark oversized sunglasses, has denounced the "warmonger" Bush and "imperialist" Bush. In response, the US is moving 17,000 of its 37,000 troops in the Korean peninsula to guard the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. The 1994 accord between the Clinton administration and North Korea - whereby the latter would halt its nuclear weapons programme in return for much-needed humanitarian aid - is thus in ruins. US intelligence assumes that Pyongyang is now pressing full steam ahead with its nuclear weapons programme, which could allow it to produce between five and seven nuclear weapons as early as July.

Yet for a while, North Korea seemed cowed by Bush's "axis of evil" pronouncement. Last July, its foreign minister, Paek Nam Sun, met the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, in what seemed to be constructive talks - the first top-level contact between the two countries since Bush took office. North Korea even invited the US to Pyongyang for talks; it agreed to re-establish road and rail links with South Korea, to remove mines from the demilitarised zone and to send 600 athletes to the Asian Games in South Korea.

But then Pyongyang did an abrupt about-turn. Last October, it announced that it was resuming its HEU (highly enriched uranium) programme to develop nuclear weapons. It then offered to halt this programme in return for talks with the Bush administration and a non-aggression pact with the US. But Dubbya and his gang refused, saying that negotiations could happen only once North Korea abandoned its uranium programme.

Today relations are more volatile, with even South Korea furious with the US for stirring things up. US relations with Seoul are now the worst since the conception of the two Koreas in 1948 and the 1950-53 Korean war, in which 37,000 Americans and more than three million Koreans were killed. South Korea's president, Roh Moo-hyun, ran for election almost solely on an anti-American platform (although the country has sent 700 non-combat troops to aid the US in Iraq). Plans for negotiations between the two Koreas, due to start on 7 April, meanwhile, collapsed in acrimony.

Now a million North Korean troops stare down 800,000 South Korean soldiers across the 238km border. Thirteen thousand pieces of North Korean artillery face Seoul, which is less than 50 miles away from the demilitarised zone and border. In 1994, General Gary Luck, then the US military commander in South Korea, estimated that if there was war with North Korea, more than a million lives would be lost - between 80,000 and 100,000 of them American. In effect, the Bush administration now has one alternative to war with North Korea: a policy of isolation and containment followed by negotiation. But that, as we now know, is hardly the style of Boy George, Rummy and co. Hence Bush's latest, almost unnoticed, threat on 3 March.

The dangers of a conflagration need hardly be exaggerated. Kim Jong Il can target just about every country in east Asia, including Japan as well as South Korea (there are a total of about 100,000 US troops in the area, plus three of the world's 12 largest economies). The Bush administration claimed in February that North Korea would soon be capable of manufacturing missiles that could reach even the US; weaponry is about the only successful export Pyongyang has, and it could easily sell weapons of mass destruction to the likes of al-Qaeda on the black market. In North Korea, a country that suffers dreadful malnutrition (at least three million North Koreans, out of a population of 23 million, died of starvation in the 1990s) and water pollution, life is cheap and paranoia high.

US intelligence knows that North Korea's main nuclear reactor is in Yongbyon, where it also has a plant that reprocesses plutonium; but Washington does not know for certain the location of other nuclear manufacturing centres. Plans for a limited airstrike against Yongbyon have been drawn up by the Pentagon, based on a presumption that radioactive fallout from such a bombing could be restricted to the Yongbyon area. The thinking is clear: a little radioactivity might discourage the North Koreans from going back to the Yongbyon plants afterwards to retrieve spent fuel rods and the like. Besides F-117 Stealth bombers stationed in South Korea, the US recently moved 24 long-range bombers to Guam.

"There's a lot we don't know about North Korea and what it might do," says Robert Gallucci, a former State Department official under Clinton who helped negotiate the now-defunct US-North Korea peace accord. What is known is that it has 1,416km of border with China, 238km with South Korea and 19km with Russia - all of which have interests in the future of North Korea that conflict with the Bush administration's. If the hotheads in the White House prevail, the resulting bloodshed could make the Iraqi incursion seem a minor skirmish.

There are hopeful signs. It is not in North Korea's interest to start a doomed war against the US, for it was a victim of the end of the cold war when its economy imploded: it seems that after the axis of evil speech, Kim Jong Il desperately wanted to negotiate for peace. The belligerence since October looks like a strategic miscalculation.

Equally, the Bush administration may not want to risk a major new war close on the heels of Iraq. Dubbya may believe he is on a crusade to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction, but he is also a ruthless politician who knows he has to face the American voters next year. Perceived "success" in Iraq would help neutralise the effects of the administration's disastrous economic and domestic policies. Bush's domestic strategy guru, Karl Rove, would probably advise against the risk of opening another front against North Korea.

Yet with the likes of Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice in the White House - and Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon - you can never be confident that calmness will prevail. Hello, Iraq and Saddam, goodbye, Baghdad: will Kim Jong Il and North Korea soon become the targets of the new television spectator sport in the US? With the unsavoury crew in charge here and on a high over Iraq, you can never be sure, I'm afraid.