Iraq down, what's the encore?

On board the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, President Bush hailed "the battle of Iraq" as "one victory in the war on terror." So what does the president, basking in his war-hero role, plan for an encore?

Syria - which Secretary of State Colin Powell said has made some unspecified promises to combat terrorism - does not suggest itself as a target for early armed action. But North Korea - which claimed last month that it has already processed enough nuclear fuel to make, and export, many weapons - looks like the next candidate to feel America's preemptive might.

An armed clash is not inevitable. The government in Pyongyang insists that, at a meeting in Beijing in late April chaperoned by the Chinese government, North Korea made a "bold proposal" to the United States in an effort to resolve the standoff.

Details of the proposal haven't been made public. But it is presumably drawn from North Korea's general wish list, which includes oil, energy, economic exchanges, and normal relations with the US. Officially, the proposal is under study by China and Japan, and also by South Korea, whose president, Roh Moo-hyun, is coming to Washington this weekend. But Mr. Bush has so far ruled out any aid to North Korea until it has submitted to verifiable nuclear disarmament.

The president accuses the Communist regime of "blackmailing" the world and starving its people while pursuing - and seeking to export - weapons of mass destruction. Bush is reported to have said, at a meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, that his central worry isn't what North Korea has, "but where it goes."

At times, Washington and Pyongyang seem tantalizingly close to an understanding, except for disagreement on the sequence in which the US extends aid and recognition and North Korea freezes its nuclear program. The difficulty is that they don't trust each other, with each side charging that the other has reneged on previous agreements. So military action remains an option - on both sides.

But an important restraint is that North Korea's nuclear arsenal may have advanced to a point where it may well foreclose a bombing strike, which was something that President Clinton considered doing in 1994 until an agreement was reached to freeze nuclear development.

On television last Sunday, the furthest Mr. Powell would go in cautioning the government of Kim Jong Il was to say that it would get no economic assistance until it forswears nuclear weapons.

The closest the Bush administration seems inclined to forceful action is an embargo aimed at interdicting nuclear exports. It is not known how much international support the US could get for a program of tracking and boarding ships suspected of carrying nuclear materials. Such a blockade, unless endorsed by the United Nations, could be considered an act of war, to which North Korea would surely threaten to respond.

Furthermore, it is an open question whether Russia and China would agree to support the embargo by not permitting overland shipment of nuclear weapons through their territory.

On tV last Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that any decision on military action would have to be made by Mr. Bush. And Secretary Powell, asked whether North Korea would be allowed to sell nuclear weapons, said "absolutely not." But he did not say how it would be stopped.

The president said on May 1 that "any outlaw regime that has ties to terrorist groups and seeks or possesses weapons of mass destruction is a grave danger to the civilized world and will be confronted."

But the dilemma remains - how do you confront an "outlaw regime" that already has nuclear weapons?

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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