Here's a short quiz. Which country is the longest-running enemy of the United States? Which is the world's most militarized state? Which has the cruelest tyranny? Which has significant weapons of mass destruction — chemical, biological, nuclear — and a record of attacking its neighbors? Which hostile country exports the most death-dealing technology? Which is the most isolated, the most unpredictable? Which has remained the most undeterred by U.S.-imposed sanctions? In terms of U.S. interests and world peace, which is the most dangerous country in the world today?
It's North Korea, of course, and the irony is that while Iraq denies it has weapons of mass destruction, North Korea shouts that it is getting them. While Iraq has U.N. inspectors poking around wherever they wish, North Korea sends them packing. Whereas Saddam Hussein is forced to destroy his best missiles, North Korean fires them threateningly into the Sea of Japan. And all the while Washington says it's not really a crisis and North Korea keeps yelling: Oh, yes, it is!
To Americans, North Koreans seem irrational. But consider what it looks like from their side. North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, has been slowly trying to break his isolation — opening up his borders a crack, flirting with Chinese-style economic zones. But of all the nuclear powers in the world, only the United States is seen as a menace to him.
After a crisis in 1994 with the Clinton administration, the United States and North Korea signed an "Agreed Framework," in which North Korea promised to suspend its plutonium-producing reactor in exchange for fuel oil, light-water reactors for electricity production and, most important, guarantees that the United States would not attack. The United States obligated itself in writing to provide "formal assurances" not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against North Korea. The United States also promised to lift sanctions and strive toward normal diplomatic relations.
But the sanctions were slow in lifting, progress toward diplomatic relations was glacial and the promise of substitute reactors seemed to fade into the future. The North Koreans hedged by embarking on a secret nuclear program involving uranium — a program that obviously broke the spirit of the Agreed Framework, but not necessarily the letter, as Jonathan Pollack of the U.S. Naval College has pointed out.
To the literal-minded North Koreans, uranium enrichment, as opposed to plutonium, was a technical loophole in the Agreed Framework. Also, since they hadn't yet built a uranium enricher, they weren't quite in violation of the nonproliferation treaty, which they have since abrogated.
Nonetheless, at the end of the Clinton administration two unprecedented events occurred. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright not only went to North Korea but actually appeared in the National Stadium with Kim, a symbolic gesture the power of which Albright may not have realized. And the second-most-important North Korean military man, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, visited the White House. A communique was signed reaffirming noninterference in each other's affairs — a document that could be considered tantamount to the nonaggression pact.
Then in came the Bush administration, vocally and aggressively opposed to anything Clinton did. One day Secretary of State Colin Powell said he would continue the Clinton approach to North Korea. On the next day President Bush said he wouldn't.
Although the Agreed Framework was never officially scrapped, the Bush administration issued a nuclear posture review and a new national security strategy, both of which left open the door not only to nuking North Korea but to a preemptive war.
And just in case those tea leaves were hard to read, there was Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech that fingered North Korea directly as an enemy. Bush himself went public with his personal detestation of Kim Jong Il. Smarter men than Kim might have smelled regime change in the new wind breaking from Washington.
One can argue that Kim should have been more familiar with what can happen to foreign policy when regimes change in the United States, but the new belligerence of the Bush administration caught even our oldest allies by surprise. The hostility toward other agreed-upon frameworks, such as environmental treaties and world courts, shook even our best friends. The payback is coming now when so few in the world support us.
It's too late to threaten North Korea with war. They have the bomb. It is not too late to negotiate. The North Koreans are demanding direct, "knee-to-knee" negotiations, as the North Koreans say, with the United States. We, crying nuclear blackmail, say we will talk only in an international framework including China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea.
The way out is clear. An international conference to which all the parties are invited, with knee-to-knee negotiations going on quietly in a side room beneath the international blankets.
Yes, the United States and north Asia are being held hostage by North Korean rascals and desperados, but the first thing you do in a hostage-taking situation is to keep talking calmly and quietly to the hostage-takers, trying to give them a way out.
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. New York Times News Service