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As the build-up for a possible war with Iraq accelerates, troops stationed in Japan and South Korea say they fear communist North Korea more than Saddam Hussein’s desert regime.

“We’re so much closer to North Korea, and their technology is so much better than Iraq’s,” said Airman 1st Class Jesse Killen, 19, of Yokota Air Base, Japan. “The United States is underestimating them right now.”

In October, North Korea said it secretly had been pursuing ways to enrich uranium — a precursor to nuclear-weapons production — which violated a 1994 agreement. Kim Jong Il’s North Korean government also announced it would reactivate its idle plutonium-based reactor 50 miles north of Pyongyang and expelled U.N. nuclear-plant inspectors from the country.

The CIA has said it believes North Korea already may have one or two nuclear warheads, built from plutonium extracted before 1994.

Last week, President Bush said he was certain weapons projects in North Korea could be stopped “peacefully through diplomacy.”

Bush has threatened to attack Iraq if it does not eliminate its weapons of mass destruction as required by U.N. resolutions adopted in 1990 after the Gulf War.

To date, U.N. weapons inspection teams now in Iraq have not reported finding such weapons.

The Pentagon has indicated it plans to deploy up to 250,000 soldiers in the Persian Gulf region; at least 50,000 already are there, according to The Associated Press.

But U.S. troops in Japan and South Korea said their proximity to North Korea makes that country seem more dangerous than Iraq.

“North Korea has the bomb, and they don’t fear using it,” said Henry McCord, an Air Force technical sergeant at Yokota Air Base. “They have shown that they don’t mind throwing a weapon this way.”

In 1998, North Korea test-fired a medium-range missile, part of which flew over the Japanese island of Honshu before plunging into the Pacific Ocean.

Pvt. Lance Yates, an Apache helicopter crew chief at Camp Eagle, South Korea, said North Korea has caused border skirmishes and is aggressive. He doesn’t see Iraq or North Korea as a direct threat to the American mainland. But that North Korea has nuclear weapons and a million soldiers on its side of the border does increase his concern.

“To the American people, neither,” Yates said of which country poses a bigger danger. “To soldiers as a threat altogether, I’d say North Korea.”

Richard House, 19, an airman stationed at Yokota, believes North Korea’s million-man army makes it more of a threat to the United States than Iraq.

“Their people are more dedicated to their government. They’re more willing to fight,” he said.

Pfc. Tais Davis, a military police officer with the 188th Military Police Company at Camp Walker in Taegu, South Korea, believes North Korea is a threat.

“Being stationed in South Korea, it’s closer to home. They could attack at any time,” said Davis.

Spc. Michael Pilarte said North Korea and Iraq have committed egregious violations of international accords and conventions.

Iraq is playing dumb with international weapons inspectors and has “been denying the U.N. for 10 years,” said Pilarte, with 542nd Medical Company at Camp Page.

But North Korea is more flagrant, admitting to working on nuclear weapons and snubbing the world. But South Koreans, he predicted, would oppose any war with the north.

“It would not happen here because … casualties would be serious,” Pilarte said.

Valarry Smith, 37, a master sergeant from Yokota, said if North Korea already has nuclear weapons, it is, indeed, the greater danger.

“Being one of the few communist nations that’s left, I’m sure North Korea wants to prove communism is still strong,” he said.

Smith said Kim, North Korea’s leader, is unpredictable: “He is very private; therefore, we’re not sure of what he may do.

“I don’t think he’s crazy, but I know he wants to prove a point to the United States that North Korea can’t be pushed around.”

An airman at Yokota who asked not to be identified said he believes Iraq is the bigger threat, that North Korea is feinting.

“It’s kind of like one bully talking to another bully,” he said of North Korea and the United States. “North Korea is trying to bluff the other person into showing their hand.”

Acquanetta Williams, a 24-year-old staff sergeant stationed at Yokota, concurred. She thinks Saddam Hussein is more dangerous than Kim.

“I think he would do something more crooked than the rest of them, and I know we’re going to war,” she said.

Franklin Fisher contributed to this story.

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