Next in Line After Iraq

American war drums are not beating as loudly right now over North Korea as they are about Iraq. That could simply be due to US worries that Saddam Hussein may be supporting Al Qaeda.

But unlike Iraq, the CIA already has concluded North Korea has one or possibly two nuclear weapons, and far better missiles than Iraq. And the North still is not living up to a 1994 agreement with the US to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities.

That's why Wednesday's brief meeting between Secretary of State Colin Powell and his North Korean counterpart carried such diplomatic weight. Unless inspections start in the next few months, North Korea might quickly move up the list of "evil" countries considered worthy of a preemptive US strike, as Iraq may be.

Pressure on the North to live up to its agreement comes from the other part of the 1994 deal. Next week, the first concrete will be poured in the North for construction of two nuclear power plants paid for by the US, Japan, Europe, and South Korea.

The $5 billion plants are being given in exchange for the North freezing its nuclear program. They will not produce bomb-grade material and can boost an economy that's left millions of North Koreans hungry.

Verifying the freeze through inspections will take three to four years. Unless that work begins soon, it won't be done by the time the new plants are ready for key components in 2005. The US and its allies probably wouldn't want to maintain construction without the inspections under way.

So far, this slow crisis has seen only slow diplomacy to end it. Lately, North Korea has become more friendly, but maybe it's worried about US threats against Iraq as well as the new Bush policy of preemptive action against nations that are building weapons of mass destruction.

The guessing-game over the North's intentions has the Bush administration divided over whether to engage or threaten the communist nation.

Mr. Powell has opened a door for engagement, but the pace of future talks must be swift to ensure inspections start soon. Otherwise, the 1994 deal will collapse, and North Korea could hear louder war drums across the Pacific.

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