Friday, March 5, 2004

SEOUL — North Korea is staunchly in the “anybody but George W. Bush” camp for the U.S. election, but South Korean critics of the president say Pyongyang would be unwise to stall nuclear talks and hope for “regime change” in Washington.

North Korea’s stance at nuclear talks with the United States in Beijing last week — where it refused to discuss a secret uranium enrichment program at the heart of a nuclear arms dispute — has prompted speculation Pyongyang will wait out the Nov. 2 vote for a better deal if Mr. Bush loses.

South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper captured this view in a cartoon that showed a jubilant North Korean leader Kim Jong-il calling expected Democratic Party nominee John Kerry’s campaign headquarters and asking: “Is there anything I can do to help?”

North Korea’s state-controlled media have not commented at length on Mr. Kerry, but they have cited approvingly the U.S. senator’s criticism of Mr. Bush’s rejection of bilateral nuclear deal-making with Pyongyang.

Mr. Bush was never in favor in North Korea — which came close to hosting what would have been an epoch visit in 2000 by his predecessor, Bill Clinton — because the Republican leader put that rapprochement process under review when he took office.

But Mr. Bush cemented North Korean enmity in early 2002 when he grouped the country in an “axis of evil” with Iran and prewar Iraq and condemned Kim Jong-il personally for oppressing and starving his people.

Among the epithets North Korea has hurled at Mr. Bush was a statement by the Foreign Ministry last year calling him a “shameless charlatan” and “the incarnation of misanthropy.”

And Pyongyang shocked the Netherlands recently when a Dutch television crew touring the country found that schools were using the “Diary of Anne Frank” to teach students that Mr. Bush is a modern-day Hitler and the United States, a Nazi dictatorship.

In South Korea, where Bush admirers are not in great numbers either, newspapers are saying North Korea would be making a mistake if it further stalled nuclear negotiations in the hope of a better deal under the Democrats.

The Korea Herald newspaper said in an editorial yesterday that it agreed with Mr. Kerry’s criticism of Mr. Bush’s stance on North Korea.

“Nonetheless, it would still be senseless for the North Koreans to have any illusion that, setting aside the election result, the power transfer in Washington will lead to any drastic changes in the U.S. policy toward its nuclear armament,” it said.

The Hankyoreh daily, the South Korean newspaper that is most friendly toward Pyongyang, said U.S. conservative antipathy to Mr. Clinton’s 1990s dealings with North Korea showed “it will have the least troubles later if it settles the matter with a Republican administration.”

North Korea analyst Paik Hak-soon of the Sejong Institute in Seoul said Pyongyang could not afford to let the rest of 2004 run out without progress on the 17-month-old nuclear crisis.

“North Korea has serious issues such as security and a sluggish domestic economy,” he said. “Actually North Korea is the one fighting against the clock.”

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