- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

PYONGYANG, North Korea — In North Korea, America is Enemy No. 1.

From the time they are children, North Koreans are taught that the United States has divided their country, is obstructing reunification with South Korea and 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, one stands out to Western visitors. It shows a rifle with a bayonet slicing through a U.S. soldier.

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

Behind the cavalcade of nuclear threats and hostile rhetoric, North Korea desperately wants to normalize relations with the United States. Doing so, Pyongyang believes, would legitimize the government, allow it 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 made some relatively constructive attempts to reach out to Washington when President Bush took office, Mr. Choi said, Mr. Bush wasn’t interested and insisted on scrapping the policy of engagement laid out by his predecessor.

Instead, Mr. Bush pushed Pyongyang further into a corner by labeling it part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

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

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

But three days of planned discussions last month in Beijing among U.S., North Korean and Chinese diplomats ended in just two days, with more harsh public rhetoric.

[In January, Pyongyang withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tension increased after North Korea on Monday nullified a 1992 agreement with South Korea to keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons, citing a “sinister” U.S. agenda.]

U.S. officials said that the North Koreans implied during the multilateral talks that the regime had nuclear weapons and that it might 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 that they could lead simply 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 nuclear-weapons production.

But after the talks ended, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell suggested that dialogue might not continue. Speaking in Washington, Mr. Powell expressed hope that South Korea and Japan would be able to participate “when and if” there was 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 its citizens know little about the West, and what they can see of it often is viewed in the context of conflict.

During a rare tour of North Korea last month, foreign visitors were bombarded with questions by an army captain about how the war in Iraq was progressing. 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.

Whether Mr. Kim was unnerved by the display of U.S. military might, he only stepped up the anti-American 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 essentially have been preparing for war all their lives. North Korea’s military is unabashedly the country’s top priority.

More than 30 percent of North Korea’s gross domestic product is spent on the military, the world’s fourth-largest, CIA estimates show. It has nearly 1.2 million troops and 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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