army captain at DMZ

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After Baghdad, Pyongyang Wonders If It's Next

March 6, 2003

PANMUNJOM, North Korea -- A North Korean army officer confidently explained to some foreign tourists his version of the Korean War: how his country's small and under-equipped army defeated America in 1953 and how they will be victorious again should they be attacked.

"The armistice (that ended the 1950-53 Korean War) was a victory for our country," he said, neglecting any mention of China's vital role in helping North Korea avoid defeat.

But when his presentation was over, it was his turn to question his visitors. It was clear there was only one topic on his mind: Iraq.

"Will the war in Iraq be long or short?" the Korean People's Army captain asked. "How many Americans have died? Will Bush continue to fight? What will the European countries do? Who will win?"

His queries betray a deep anxiety held by many North Koreans, that when the war in Iraq is finished, they will be the next target.

"They believe from a variety of statements that have been made ... that they are next on the list," said Maurice Strong, a special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan who recently visited North Korea. "They feel a real sense of threat."

In the world's most militarized country, where even children's' cartoons are about war and violence, 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.

Above all, they are taught that the United States is the cause of just about all of their problems. It was America who divided their country, they believe, America who is keeping them from reunifying with the South and America who is preventing them from developing their economy.

"American doesn't like us, so how can we like them?" said a tour guide.

The standoff over North Korea's nuclear program -- and Washington's refusal to hold bilateral negotiations, as Pyongyang has demanded -- have increased tensions to the point where war is no longer just a propaganda tool.

"There is a real potential for this escalating into conflict," Strong said in London last week. "I think war is unnecessary, unthinkable in its consequences, and yet it is entirely possible."

The U.N. Security Council is set to discuss the crisis on Wednesday, the day before North Korea's withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which it announced in January, becomes final.

Washington says it wants to hold a dialogue in a multilateral forum, with China, South Korea and other countries taking part. North Korea believes the United States controls its future and wants to negotiate a non-aggression pact directly with Washington.

Already, the war in Iraq is pushing North Korea to take undesirable steps, according to a Russian official.

"The Iraq situation, unfortunately, is prompting the North Koreans to strengthen their defenses," Alexander Losyukov, a Russian deputy foreign minister, told the Interfax news agency last week.

Asked if the Iraq war could push Pyongyang to build a nuclear weapon, he said: "Yes, obviously. And the lack of any negotiation process (with the United States) hugely increases that danger."

Two days after the United States launched its attack on Baghdad, air-raid sirens throughout Pyongyang sounded. The city's 2 million residents knew what to do. They headed to the nearest bomb shelter, or to one of the city's subway stations, 330 feet below ground. It was 11 a.m. For an hour, they waited in the dark.

"I was in my office," a tour guide said. "When it finished, I went to lunch."

The heightened war anxieties are exacerbated by joint military exercises of the United States and South Korea, which are held annually in March.

"March is always a tense time," the guide said.

North Korea makes no attempts to hide the fact that its military is 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 army-first policy."

"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."

The North Korean parliament last month increased state spending on the military to 15.4 percent of the budget this year, up from 14.9 percent in 2002. State-run Korean Central News Agency said the increase was "to meet the fundamental interests of the revolution ... and train the people's army as an invincible army and thus consolidate the country's defenses as an impregnable fortress," but did not give the amount of the total budget.

More than 30 percent of its gross domestic product is spent on the military, according to CIA estimates. It has nearly 1.2 million troops plus 7.5 million reservists, according to South Korea's Ministry of Defense. More than 70 percent of its soldiers are stationed within 100 miles of the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea.

On the highway from Pyongyang to Panmunjom, the truce village that straddles the demarcation line dividing the two countries, artillery and soldiers can be seen in the hillsides. Concrete columns line the road every few miles: in case of an attack from the south, explosives would cause the columns to fall and block invading tanks and trucks.

The regime, run by dictator Kim Jong-il, commands absolute control over all information. Cell phones and laptops of foreign visitors are confiscated. Having a shortwave radio and watching Chinese television are serious crimes.

Ordinary North Koreans did not see their first images of the war in Iraq until 10 days after it started. Even then, footage was mostly of captured U.S. soldiers. They are unaware their government test-fired two short-range missiles in recent months. One of them was launched just hours before the inauguration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in February.

They also have no idea that President Bush has labeled them part of the "axis of evil," along with Iran and Iraq, in his state of the union address last year. One tour guide, who, as a trusted party member is one of the few North Koreans allowed contact with foreigners, had heard something about it.

"Is it axis of devil?" he asked foreign visitors last week. "Or devil axis?"

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