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A Look At The Parallels Between U.S. Relations With North Korea And Iraq


American diplomats are in Seoul today to talk with allies about North Korea. The U.S. and its allies have increased sanctions on Pyongyang in hopes that it would back away from developing nuclear weapons. And so far, there is little proof that that is working. Our next guest sees parallels between the situation with North Korea today and the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.

Charles Duelfer ran the Iraq Survey Group. It was a Government fact-finding mission that went into Iraq after the invasion. It concluded that Saddam Hussein did not have massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction as the Bush administration had claimed. Mr. Duelfer, welcome to the program.

CHARLES DUELFER: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: What do you see as the parallel between where we are with North Korea today and where we were with Iraq back then?

DUELFER: Basically there's a fundamental ignorance on both sides, and I'm not sure it's an avoidable problem. But you know, Saddam was looking at the United States, and he had an image of what the United States was about. And the United States had an image about Saddam. And both of them were wildly off the mark, as we learned later when we had the opportunity to speak with both Saddam and his top lieutenants.

SHAPIRO: You say both sides are guessing about the other's intentions. Of course the U.S. does not have an embassy in North Korea and did not have an embassy in Iraq before the invasion there. To what extent do you think that's the reason these sides may be misjudging each other?

DUELFER: Well, Ari, it contributes to it. In the case of Iraq, we had an embassy which was closed in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. And for over a decade, we didn't have that pool of ambassadors and other government officials that would go in and out of the capital and get a - you know, sort of a tactile feel for what they're about. So while it may feel good and be a good diplomatic step perhaps to close an embassy, you lose a lot, and over time, your ignorance grows. But you're nevertheless making assumptions about the other side, and they progressively get worse and worse.

SHAPIRO: What kinds of assumptions do you mean?

DUELFER: Well, for example, what is motivating the other side? How far are they progressing in the case of WMD? You know, what are they doing there? And don't forget that the other side is making assumptions about the United States. I mean, pity the poor guy or woman who is supposed to explain Washington to Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Un. They have very little idea what's going on.

In the case of Saddam, for example, you know, he didn't even have a word for lobbyist. I mean, his model of how Washington operated was very, very limited. They would make assumptions. For example, I mean, this will sound silly, but their fundamental assumption about the United States is that we're smart. They assume that we spend all this money on intelligence, that we really know what's going on. In the case of Saddam, you know, eventually he assumed that we knew that he had gotten rid of all his WMD. These kinds of misunderstandings are inevitable when you have so little contact, and yet you have to make critical assumptions just to plan the security of both countries.

SHAPIRO: There does seem to be at least one very important difference between Iraq then and North Korea today, which is that North Korea's weapons of mass destruction program does not appear to be in dispute.

DUELFER: That's correct, and that's what makes the undercurrent circumstances, you know, particularly unnerving. I mean, if you're sitting in North Korea and you're worried about your survival, you can look at some of the other cases which do not have happy lessons for our current circumstances.

If you look at Libya, when was Gaddafi overthrown - oh, after he got rid of his nuclear weapons program. When was Saddam Hussein overthrown - after he got rid of his WMD. You can look at Pakistan where for years we were haranguing the Pakistanis not to double up on these programs, but they did. They scooted across the finish line, and now they're our allies in the global war on terror. So you know, the lessons for Kim Jong Un are not necessarily very positive when you look at these other cases.

SHAPIRO: Charles Duelfer is former head of the Iraq Survey Group, now chairman of the consulting firm Omnis. Thanks very much for joining us.

DUELFER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.