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North Korea: the baddest of the big bad three

George Bush took some flak for his "axis of evil" speech linking Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

The critics ranged from demonstrators in South Korea who thought he had sabotaged their "sunshine" overtures to the North Koreans to disgruntled Europeans who thought President Bush was in "unilateral overdrive."

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What we should all do is put the "axis" part of his phrase behind us and focus on the "evil" part - for that indeed is what characterizes the leadership elements in each of those countries, linked or not.

The evil deeds and policies of Iraq's Saddam Hussein hardly need elaboration. A brutal dictator, he has massacred his own people, invaded Iran, invaded and pillaged Kuwait, broken his cease-fire agreements, developed nuclear and germ-warfare weapons, obstructed international inspectors looking for them, fostered terrorism, and is clearly a thoroughly bad and dangerous actor on the international scene.

The United States is committed to a "regime change," which means getting rid of him. But the mechanics of his departure and the character of his succession are not yet clear. In the meantime, the US has the military capacity - and the resolve - to contain him.

Iran is a similarly worrisome troublemaker, with which the US has had an occasionally uneasy, sometimes nonexistent, relationship since Revolutionary Guards and attendant thugs seized the American Embassy in Tehran more than 20 years ago. Iran is a fomenter of terrorism, a suspected producer of nuclear weaponry, and a meddler in Afghanistan. It was recently caught shipping a boatload of lethal rockets and explosives to Palestinians for use against Israel.

American analysts find Iran complicated. On the one hand, the rabid fundamentalists gathered around supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cry, "Death to America." But on the other, are forces of moderation that must be cultivated because they might one day return Iran to stability and even civilized discourse with the rest of the world.

We are left with North Korea, the baddest of this big bad trio of nations. This Orwellian hermit nation is the least predictable of the three, and for that reason could turn out to be the most dangerous. It is run by a few thousand privileged elite, who owe their loyalty and power to their "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il, who runs a brutal totalitarian Communist state that has outlived Stalin's and Mao's.

President Carter tried to draw North Korea out of its isolation, mistakenly, in my view, dangling the prospect of withdrawing US garrison troops from South Korea without a quid pro quo from the North. But North Korea remained reclusive and inaccessible. President Clinton tried, agreeing to build two huge power reactors in return for Kim Jong Il halting nuclear-weapons production and opening up to international inspection. But the inspections have not taken place. President Bush inherits this situation at a critical moment.

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North Korea has been blowing hot and cold on the "sunshine" effort of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung to draw it out of isolation. Meanwhile, US analysts say there is paralysis in the North Korean leadership as it tries to determine the direction of its foreign policy.

Thus, President Bush confronts a nation that has remained remarkably aloof as it secretly develops nuclear weapons, engages in state terrorism and political assassinations abroad, and runs a harsh police state at home in which its citizens have died by the tens of thousands from starvation because of a stricken economy.

North Korea needs both stick and carrot from the US: a display of military firmness that will deter it from mischievous adventures and economic inducement to join the world it has shunned.

A good first step would be to expand broadcasting by the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia which broadcasts two hours a day into North Korea and should do more. RFA is patterned after Radio Free Europe, designed to tell enslaved peoples what is going on in their own censored countries. By switching among four different frequencies, it manages to evade much of North Korea's jamming. And though penalties for North Koreans are harsh for tuning in to anything but the sole authorized radio channel, they still dare to listen.

Thus might be hastened North Korea's first steps into the sunshine of political freedom and economic progress.

• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.