Why can the US invade Iraq for weapons of mass destruction but not North Korea who have confirmed nuclear weapons? Are they more scared of NK?

  • Comments deleted. Please don't use comments to answer the question. If you would like to answer the question, please write a real answer.
    – CDJB
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 9:10
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    Pointing out the inconsistencies of the US trying to justify all it's wars is cool. But this question could be (vastly) improved by first asking if, in the last few decades, the US serously considered invading NK (with a special focus on the time before NK had nukes and ICBM and all that).
    – mart
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 9:57

8 Answers 8


Because there's no oil in NK.

And there's the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which would make a war with NK a (nuclear?) war with China.

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    The oil thing is more of a political opinion than a fact.
    – JohnFx
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 4:08
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    Quoting from that article: "Of course it's about oil; we can't really deny that," said Gen. John Abizaid, former head of U.S. Central Command and Military Operations in Iraq, in 2007. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan agreed, writing in his memoir, "I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil." Then-Sen. and now Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the same in 2007: "People say we're not fighting for oil. Of course we are."
    – Allure
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 4:31
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    This answer would be greatly improved by adding citation and quotation for the oil motivation behind the Iraq invasion. @Allure has already provided an excellent link and citation for this - adding it to the answer would improve it greatly and prevent the citation from being lost in comment clean-up.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 14:20
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – CDJB
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 8:15

WMD were only part of a complex reasoning that led to the Gulf Wars. The West had no serious problems with Iraqi WMD as long as they were aimed at Iran. But then Saddam Hussein miscalculated and went after Kuwait, and suddenly Iraq was a "rogue nation." The enduring hostility from the unfinished 1991 Gulf War led to the 2003 regime change. (Wikipedia overview)

Several nations other than the "official five" have developed nuclear weapons -- Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, North Korea -- yet there were no wars to disarm them. Others "without" nuclear weapons programs are far closer to the bomb than Iraq or Iran ever were -- Germany, Japan. More have chemical and biological weapons.

A cynic might argue that North Korea has too many WMD to disarm them, and Seoul under their (conventional and chemical) guns.

A realist might argue that Iraq was a gross miscalculation regarding the ease of regime change, and there is no appetite to repeat that mistake before the Middle East is settled.

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    But the 1990 Kuwait invasion, under Bush-I was followed by Desert Storm, with a stated purpose merely to liberated Kuwait. It wasn't until 2003, after "9/11" and the invasion of Aghanistan that Iraq was invaded for WMD, (under Bush-II). Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 19:30
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    @OwenReynolds Not only was the stated purpose of Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait, but that was the limit of the mandate given to the task force by the UN - there was no mandate for regime change in Iraq, so once Kuwait was liberated that was that. There are still questions around the legality of the no-fly zones that the US, UK and (until 1996) France enforced on Iraq after Desert Storm - these were not authorised by the UN so were essentially unlawful actions.
    – user16741
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 22:52
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    The first paragraph risks conflating the first and second US wars against Iraq. I'm sure you know this, but please edit to make this more clear and accurate.
    – user5526
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 23:17
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    @BenCrowell, in my mind they are pretty much conflated. 1991 didn't really settle anything, and the following decade was filled with acrimony and punitive strikes. This history of acrimony (and not specifics like WMD or terror) put Iraq into the crosshairs in 2003. Other countries had more terror funding, just as much oil, and a similar human rights records, but smoother diplomacy.
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 5:30
  • "The West had no serious problems with Iraqi WMD" strongly implies there still were WMD in Iraq, when "the West" used them as a reason for going to war, again. - Of course, it can be debated, what actually constitutes a WMD (AK-47 guns probably killed more people than any other single modern age weapon type). But Iraq destroyed what is usually referred to as WMD after losing the war in 1991. And I'm not sure if they used any during the 1991 Gulf War. Weren't they just used against Iran and their own citizens? Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 21:44

Why can the US invade Iraq for weapons of mass destruction but not North korea who have confirmed nuclear weapons?

It's not true that the US invaded Iraq because of Iraq's supposed WMD capability. Saddam Hussein had already gotten rid of his WMDs to end sanctions. He didn't publicize the fact that he had done so, but the US government knew that he had. Hans Blix's team found the facilities completely disused. One site was covered in a "three-inch layer of pigeon dung."

Rather than WMD's, the root cause of the war was a sense of overweening power in the Bush administration. People like Madeleine Albright had already been pushing for regime change, and during the Bush administration many others in the foreign policy establishment had been saying you have this military power, why aren't you willing to use it to overthrow Hussein? Bush was being told that the Iraqi people would welcome the US as liberators, and that an invasion would lead to a democratizing cascade in places like Iran. It was made clear to people working in the intelligence agencies that their reports should support the case for war. The US public was still angry about 9/11, and although Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks (most of the hijackers were Saudi), there was emotional fuel for a war. Colin Powell was finally pressured into making a presentation of the falsified evidence to the UN, even though he had initially thought the idea of invading Iraq was ridiculous and obviously wouldn't happen.

The question is written in the present tense, but the situation with North Korea was very different in 2003, the year the Iraq war started, than it is now in 2020. North Korea didn't have a functional nuclear weapons capability then. If the US had invaded in 2003, it would have quickly overwhelmed their military, and the only immediate retaliation would have been artillery attacks against Seoul. The question would have been the reaction from China. The situation could have easily spiraled out of control. Eliminating the North Korean nuclear capability would have required a US occupation of the entire country, and it's very unlikely that China would have allowed that to happen without acting.

An invasion today would be extremely risky for all of the same reasons as it would have been in 2003, but in addition there would be the risk that North Korea would be able to use its nuclear weapons (and possible other WMD's) as an effective deterrent against the US, US military bases in Asia, or US allies such as South Korea and Japan.


Re Albright, see Mazarr, https://www.jstor.org/stable/24907218

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    Another factor is that most of Iraq is flat desert, ideal for the kind of tank warfare with air support that the USA excels at. Most of NK is forested mountains, which is the kind of battlespace that the USA has learned to stay away from. Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 18:51
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    The comment about Madeleine Albright is not true (politifact.com/factchecks/2016/feb/07/bernie-s/…)
    – Maxime
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 22:01
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    @Maxime: Thanks for your comment. It prompted me to look carefully at Albright's position and edit my answer to give the most accurate possible picture. Albright pushed for regime change in Iraq during the Clinton administration, but she expressed more doubts and ambivalence in public statements when the Bush administration was actually getting ready to go to war. I've added a reference.
    – user5526
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 23:13
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    @PaulJohnson some of those lessons were learned right there in Korea of course
    – Chris H
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 9:42
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    I really like that this answer, as the only answer so far, sticks to the 2003 context, and then to today, instead of mixing all up like the other answers. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 9:57

Basically North-Korea is close to being an unofficial protectorate of China. Invading North-Korea would probably get China to declare war on the US. You also would have to ask yourself what it would do to South-Korea one of the few bastions of democracy in Asia.

A lot of South-Korea still harbour ambitions of a unified Korea and not only would it lead to great turmoil on the geo-political landscape in Asia, it would probably kill of what small chance there is of unification.

  • If I remember correctly, SK has been a democracy for barely 33 years, after a long tradition of military dictatorship, de-facto communism and other forms of authoritarian leadership. They have been under Japanese rule for a longer time! - I wouldn't call them a "bastion" of democracy, until they prove resilient against a tried system change. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 21:58


Because the relevant weapon of mass destruction in that case was money, not things which splode.


I heard* that shortly before the US went into Iraq, Iraq had moved to primarily selling their oil in Euro's. The US befits from USD being backed by oil / the de facto reserve currency (think Breton Woods 2.0) And to be fair, for the most part, it works quite well for the rest of the world as well.

So even though NK has some nasty splodes. They are only posturing, not credibly disrupting things; particularly money. Further more, NK is aligned to China. If the US were to make moves on NK, that would not feel comfortable for China. Remember how the US felt, and reacted, when the USSR was looking to set up shop in Cuba!

* I don't recall where sorry.

  • That is VERY interesting answer - as long as the US is strongly opposing non-dollars trading. If you ever find the source, that would be very intersting. I heard something similar about Lybia and its attempts to establish African currency, nominated in gold. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 6:33
  • I had also "heard" this, but even if true one could consider it a symptom of needing to avoid the primary consequences of possible US sanctions and increasing US hostility by not being dependent on their currency as opposed to an actual trigger for war.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 13:20
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    @Separatrix I am guessing it was probably the culmination of several factors. It will be interesting to se what gets declassified in the next 50 years or so. Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 22:09

The United States just can't invade the North Korean Regime because of the nuclear strength of North Korea. If Washington and its army want to bring down such a regime it wouldn't be impossible that North Korea might use nuclear force to defend its sovereignty and in that case, would not only be a disaster in the Korean Peninsula but also across the Continent and American Allies. It's even worse taking the risk, as such a strike from Washington needs strong military strength and would require military mobilization in South Korea and bases across the region. North Korea also has support from China and Russia.

  1. Why can’t the US attack North Korea like it did Syria? The Korean Peninsula technically remains in a state of war. Fighting halted on July 27, 1953 under an armistice signed between Washington and Beijing. If the US initiated an attack, it would break the treaty endorsed by the United Nations.


  • China would have to help North Korea during American Ambush as both signed Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty and China wouldn't want American influence and interference in its near region and it's not unlikely that Russia wouldn't play business.

China is concerned that its border provinces would be inundated with North Korean refugees if the Kim regime collapsed. From a geopolitical point of view, Beijing views North Korea as a buffer zone from the potential encroachment by powers are aligned with the US, including Japan and South Korea.

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    This is false. The North Korean nuclear weapons are no deterrent. If nothing else, North Korea's primitive missles could be downed during their boost phase. The actual deterrent is tens of thousands of conventional artillery pieces aimed at Seoul.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 6, 2020 at 18:09

The official reason for the invasion was that Iraq was not complying with the conditions of the cease fire that ended the first Persian Gulf War. If you wish to have it explained why the US did not enforce an agreement that North Korea was similarly violating, you'll have to say what that is.

As far as practical motivations, that's arguably off-topic, as it requires mind-reading. North Korea posed more of a threat, it has less strategic value, it has strong ties to China, and those all could have been factors.

  • Noncompliance with the 1991 ceasefire agreement was only one of the reasons listed in the 2002 AUMF: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Finding the motivations of people like Cheney doesn't require mind-reading, because there are written records of the discussions.
    – user5526
    Commented Dec 18, 2020 at 22:21
  • @BenCrowell It was the main reason. Cheney did not vote in the AUMF. Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 0:58

The key difference, IMHO, is that the Saddam regime was actively supporting jihadist attacks against the US and other countries, while to date North Korea is simply talk.

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    North Korea has attacked the US with cyberweapons though (at least, the US claims they have). nytimes.com/2020/04/15/world/asia/north-korea-cyber.html
    – Allure
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 1:37
  • @Allure Fortunately the US has quickly reacted by banning all the not enough US friendly organizations (even in his allies) from the Facebook ;-)
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 9:22
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    Saddam was a brutal dictator and shall not be missed but where did he support jihadist attacks?
    – mart
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 9:59
  • Could you add sources to that statement?
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 11:16
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    @jamesqf, the US studied their intelligence failures regarding Iraq extensively, in think tanks of various political leanings and also by officially. One of these giving chapter and verse on Iraq-Jihadist links would be nice.
    – o.m.
    Commented Dec 7, 2020 at 17:11

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