anti-US sign

USS Pueblo guide

Desperate For Legitimacy, North Korea Still Demonizes America

April 24, 2003

PYONGYANG, North Korea -- In North Korea, America is Enemy Number One.

From the time they are children, North Koreans are taught that it is America who divided their country, America who is keeping them from reunifying with the South and America who is preventing them from developing their economy.

Among the myriad propaganda posters lining the streets, most showing fresh-faced young soldiers carrying machine guns or peasants and scientists working together to make revolution, there is one that stands out to Western visitors. It shows a rifle with a bayonet at the end slicing through an American soldier.

But the all-powerful enemy is also seen as the potential savior.

Behind the cavalcade of nuclear threats and hostile rhetoric, North Korea desperately wants to normalize relations with the United States. Doing so, they believe, would legitimize their government, allow them to join the international community and open a floodgate of aid and investment, especially from Japan and South Korea.

"They feel better relations with the United States is the most important factor to defend their system," said Choi Jinwook, a North Korea specialist at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul. "They think the United States has everything in their hands."

Although leader Kim Jong-il tried more constructive attempts to reach out to Washington last year, said Choi, President Bush wasn't interested, insisting on scrapping the policy of engagement laid out by his predecessor.

Instead, Bush pushed Pyongyang further into a corner by labeling it part of the "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq.

On the edge of economic collapse, Kim played his last and best card: his nuclear weapons program. He threatened and he provoked and did his best to make sure Washington kept paying attention. Yet when the U.S.-led attack on Iraq started, afraid that North Korea would be the next target, he suddenly went quiet.

Then, with Baghdad falling in just weeks, North Korea quickly signaled its willingness to hold talks in the multilateral format that Washington had demanded.

But three days of planned discussions last week in Beijing between U.S., North Korea and Chinese diplomats ended in just two days, with nothing more than harsh public rhetoric to show for the efforts.

U.S. officials said that the North Koreans implied during the talks that the regime has nuclear weapons and that it may conduct a test. North Korea said U.S. demands that Pyongyang disarm were just a pretext for American plans to make war in the region.

Expectations had been low for the meetings, with hopes they could simply lead to a subsequent round of talks on North Korea's nuclear programs. It was thought that ongoing diplomatic engagement would settle fears in the region and prevent North Korea from progressing with its nuclear weapons production.

But after the talks ended on Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that there may not be future talks. Speaking in Washington, Powell expressed hope that South Korea and Japan would be able to participate "when and if" there is another round of talks.

He also warned: "North Korea should not leave the meetings having the slightest impression that they might force us to make a concession we would not otherwise make."

North Korea's perceptions of U.S. policy and intents can be difficult to discern. The country's sequestered existence means that North Koreans know little about the West and what they can see of it is often viewed in the context of a possible war.

During a rare visit to North Korea earlier this month, foreign visitors were bombarded with questions by an army captain about how the war in Iraq was progressing. The captain, speaking at Panmunjom, a truce village in the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea, wanted to know how many Americans had died, how long Bush would keep fighting and who would win. Even the Korean People's Army, it seems, was worried.

"The shock the North felt over the swift end of the Iraqi regime must have been enormous," Paik Hak-soon, a research analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, told the South Korean Yonhap News Agency.

But if Kim was unnerved by the display of American military might, he only stepped up the anti-U.S. saber-rattling at home.

"If the U.S. ignites a nuclear war in Korea, our revolutionary armed forces will mercilessly wipe out the aggressors and put a final end to the confrontation with the U.S.," the communist party newspaper, Rodong Sinmum, said in a commentary the day before talks in Beijing started.

Such hyperbole may sound laughable to outsiders, but in the world's most militarized country, where even children's cartoons are about combat, citizens have essentially been preparing for war all their lives. The country's one television channel constantly airs old Soviet and Korean war movies and schoolchildren are regularly taken to watch "Blood Sea," an opera about Korean peasants fighting Japanese colonialists.

High school students take target practice on dummies they are told are American soldiers.

"As we shot, they'd shout out, 'the evil Americans!"' said Choi Mi-wha, 30, who fled North Korea five years ago and now lives in Seoul.

In a country with many vital social needs, North Korea's military is unabashedly the country's top priority. In fact, it's state policy. Many of the numerous propaganda posters and signs throughout Pyongyang and dotting the countryside exhort citizens to support the military-first policy.

More than 30 percent of its gross domestic product is spent on the military, the world's fourth-largest, according to CIA estimates. It has nearly 1.2 million troops plus 7.5 million reservists. More than 70 percent of its soldiers are stationed within 100 miles of the demilitarized zone.

"Even though we are poor and our living standards have not gone up, our country puts all our resources into national defense," the army captain said. "If America attacks us again, we will defeat them in one stroke."

Those who aren't quite sure whether to believe the propaganda of their own invincibility try to reassure themselves with facts.

"I watched the Iraq war on TV," a North Korean tour guide said. "It's all flat. Korea is 80 percent hills."

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