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N. Korea's Bellicose Rhetoric Against U.S. Is Seen as Mostly Brinkmanship

November 08, 2002|Barbara Demick | Times Staff Writer

SEOUL -- Whatever else one says about the North Koreans, they've never been accused of churning out bland diplomatic blather or beating around the bush. The propaganda machine in Pyongyang is so famous for its sharp tongue that a headline writer once labeled it the "great vituperator."

In recent days, the North Koreans have warned that they might revoke their moratorium on missile testing. They've insisted that they have the right to develop any kind of weapon they choose to defend themselves against "U.S. imperialist war hawks," whose behavior they colorfully describe as "brigandish" and "gangster-like."

Despite their blunt language, the North Koreans don't always mean what they say. Longtime North Korea watchers say the regime often ratchets up the rhetoric not when it wants to pick a fight, but when it wants to talk.

That may be precisely what is happening now.

"North Korea wants very badly to establish relations with the United States," said Rhee Bong Jo, an assistant South Korean unification minister who visited Pyongyang last month shortly after the North Koreans confessed that they have a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear bombs. "Their admission was for the sake of negotiation. This was brinkmanship."

Donald Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea who traveled to the North's capital this week, said officials there complained repeatedly that they had managed to improve relations with Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, but not the United States.

" 'What's the matter with you Americans? Why don't you join the procession of countries making better relations with North Korea?' " Gregg quoted a top North Korean general, Rhee Chang Bok, as telling him.

Confronted early last month by Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, the only official U.S. envoy to visit Pyongyang since President Bush took office, the North Koreans admitted to the uranium enrichment program. They also said that the U.S. had in effect nullified a 1994 agreement under which North Korea gave up its nuclear weapons development in exchange for help with its energy needs.

In the last week, various North Korean diplomats have made alternatively belligerent and conciliatory statements on the subject.

A North Korean envoy to the United Nations, Han Song Ryol, said in a statement to the New York Times that Pyongyang wanted to negotiate a deal to close down its nuclear enrichment project.

But other North Koreans have defiantly defended the program. "We [are] entitled to possess not only nuclear weapons but any type of weapon more powerful than that in order to protect our sovereignty and right to subsistence from an ever-growing U.S. nuclear threat," North Korea's ambassador to China, Choe Jin Su, said at a news conference last week. Meanwhile, the envoy in Hong Kong, Rhee To Sop, told the South China Morning Post that "if we scrap, for instance, the nuclear program or reduce our armed forces, we would have nothing to defend ourselves."

And the North Korean newspaper Rodong Sinmun editorialized, "We can't live without weapons. We won't trade our weapons for mountains of gold."

Most troubling, the official North Korean news agency issued a statement Tuesday from an unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman threatening to end the moratorium on missile testing. In 1998, North Korea test-fired a long-range Taepodong rocket over Japan. The threat to renew testing was seen as an explicit warning to Tokyo, with which North Korea has begun to discuss normalization, but it was shrugged off by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Peter Hayes, director of the Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, which studies the North Korean nuclear program, says that world leaders and diplomats have learned not to become overly rattled by Pyongyang's insults and threats, because they are precursors to dialogue.

"You can predict when they are edging toward dialogue by the fierce strategy that comes before," Hayes said. He noted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is an avid student of filmmaking who has also written on the subject. "This is all very carefully choreographed with a nod to guerrilla tactics."

Song Yong Sun, a professor at the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul, believes that the North Koreans chose their moment carefully, figuring that in the midst of its effort to build a coalition against Iraq, the United States would be more lenient with North Korea.

"This is classic bluff and bluster that is very typical of the way the North Koreans conducted their negotiations in the past. They need a crisis in order to negotiate," said Scott Snyder, the Asia Foundation representative in Seoul. "It is in their interest to play up the threat precisely because they are weak."

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