PYONGYANG, North Korea — A nuclear deal with the United States may have raised hopes that tensions on the Korean peninsula could ease soon, but rare interviews Friday by The Associated Press with Pyongyang residents suggest deep cynicism of U.S. intentions.
North Korea’s military, meanwhile, repeated threats of a “merciless sacred war” against South Korea — highlighting the lingering animosity between the divided Koreas despite the North’s diplomatic breakthrough with Washington.
The U.S.-North Korea announcement of an agreement to freeze North Korea’s nuclear activities in exchange for food aid was seen in Washington as a promising first step toward discussing nuclear disarmament. But in North Korea’s capital, where citizens are taught from childhood to hate Americans, skepticism ran deep.
“I heard the news, but I’m not very excited,” Jong Yun Hui, 43, told the AP. She said many rounds of talks over the years have failed to result in food or much-needed energy.
“I have no faith in the U.S.,” she said. North Koreans are subject to daily propaganda, and the views of those interviewed often reflect what is said by the government.
Under the deal announced Wednesday, North Korea has agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and observe a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests, and to allow the return of U.N. inspectors expelled in 2009. In return, the U.S. promised 240,000 metric tons of food aid, mostly for hungry children, as well as to help facilitate cultural, educational and athletic exchanges.
Next week, a senior North Korean nuclear negotiator is scheduled to travel to New York to attend a security conference organized by Syracuse University in a trip seen as an early sign of warming relations under new leader Kim Jong Un even as there is widespread skepticism that the deal will hold.
The United States and North Korea fought on opposite sides of the three-year Korean War, finally signing a truce in 1953 to stop a conflict that left millions dead and millions of families divided. They have never signed a peace treaty, and the Korean peninsula remains divided by the world’s most heavily fortified border.
From childhood, North Koreans are taught to hate the “American wolves.” The U.S. is blamed for the division of the Korean peninsula and is routinely accused of seeking to invade the North on South Korea’s behalf.
However, in recent years, many of the posters that urged North Koreans to attack the Americans have been taken down and replaced with ones reflecting the new policy of building up the economy.
News of the deal was trickling down to Pyongyang residents, but many seemed unwilling to accept that North Korea was ready to give up a nuclear program that was the country’s pride and joy during late leader Kim Jong Il’s rule. Bombs and missiles were considered the chief deterrent against the military threat posed by the United States, which keeps more than 28,000 troops in South Korea.
In a sign that a similar breakthrough in relations between the Koreas appears distant, the North’s army threatened in a statement a “merciless sacred war” over the alleged defamation of North Korean pictures and joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which began this week and will run through April. North Korea has routinely denounced such drills as a precursor to war.
Two soldiers in Pyongyang expressed anger after hearing the North accuse South Korea’s military of writing defamatory remarks below portraits of North Korean leaders.
“What the South Korean military did is beyond imagination,” Ri Sang Ik, a 45-year-old lieutenant colonel of the Korean People’s Army, told the AP.
In comments echoing state media propaganda, Kim Cho Hyang, an 18-year-old KPA soldier, said in an interview, “I am running out of patience waiting for an order. We have issued enough warnings so far. I cannot wait to storm the den of the group of traitors.”
In a video interview with the AP on Friday, North Korean Foreign Ministry official Jong Yong Chol said “the smell of gunpowder goes contrary to the atmosphere” of diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea.
Another Pyongyang resident, O Myong Ok, sounded supportive of the bid to improve relations between the U.S. and North Korea.
“How wonderful it would be if the tension on the Korean peninsula could be eased by having one- or two-day talks,” O, 38, told the AP after hearing that the two sides agreed to the deal after two days of negotiations in Beijing.
But the skepticism quickly took over: “I don’t believe that will happen,” she said.