Despite Anti-US Billboards, N. Korea Aims for US Favor

SOMEWHAT frayed by time, many official posters in North Korea depict a cartoon United States soldier - with a big nose and a mean look - getting gunned down in battle. With such propaganda and little else to go on, people in this hermit-like nation not unexpectedly hold strong anti-US feelings.

But they are out of date.

Communist leaders in Pyongyang have begun to court Washington actively in recent months, appearing to ignore four decades of a military standoff, the Korean War, and their own anti-US propaganda. Just how to break the news to indoctrinated North Koreans has yet to be announced.

"US-North Korea relations were not the order of the day in the past," says Song Rak Un, head of the North American department in North Korea's Foreign Ministry. "But the cold war is over, and now relations are the order of the day."

The two longtime adversaries are still far from exchanging ambassadors or from negotiating a withdrawal of their troops from the tense North-South border. Like Cuba and Vietnam, North Korea has yet to win Washington's favor despite the fact that it is no longer a military-aid client of the defunct Soviet Union.

The US agreed to its first low-level ties with hard-line communist North Korea only two years ago, and has held about 20 counselor-level meetings in Beijing in semi-secrecy since then. In the meantime, however, the US began to suspect that North Korea was developing the capability to make a nuclear weapon.

As a result, economic aid and warmer diplomatic ties are being withheld by the US and many of its allies until the North opens up suspected nuclear sites to international and South Korean inspection. The US even set a deadline of mid-June for such inspections to begin.

In dire need of breaking out of its diplomatic isolation to gain aid and trade that will help pay for oil imports, North Korea is trying break the resolve of the US, as well as of nations such as France and Japan.

It appears to be moving ahead on allowing nuclear inspections, albeit slowly. Its anti-US rhetoric, such as the kind that depicts "Yankees as wolves in human form," has been slightly toned down, although not much. (The US continues to tag North Korea as a terrorist state and recently considered intercepting a shipment of Scud missiles from North Korea to the Middle East.)

Pyongyang claimed that American preacher Billy Graham, on a visit to North Korea last month, carried a message from his friend, President Bush, asking for closer ties. The US denied the claim.

More and more US academics and journalists are being invited to Pyongyang. And American tourists are heartily encouraged to visit this once forbidden land.

Despite the US government's best efforts to prevent such travel, about 150 Americans made the trip in the past year.

"The problem is not here; the problem is there [the US]," says Kim Do Jun, head of North Korean tourist promotion.

Yesterday, North Korea returned 15 sets of suspected remains of US servicemen listed as missing in action during the 1950-53 Korean War, with another 15 due in a few weeks. Not since 1954, when North Korea returned 1,868 sets of remains, has it made such a large gesture toward the US.

The Pentagon says that 8,177 American servicemen are unaccounted for from the war, including several hundred known to have been alive at the war's end in 1953.

Such conciliatory steps by North Korea are based on its assumption that the US is currently the "weakest link" in a US-Japan-South Korea economic boycott of Pyongyang, says Han Sung Joo, political science professor at Seoul-based Korea University.

"North Korea knows that South Korea and Japan are more difficult to negotiate with than the US," Dr. Han says. Last year, North Korea tried hard to win aid and concessions from South Korea and Japan but failed, he says. "Now the North is making a full-court press on the US.

"North Korea will do just enough [to convince the world that it does not have nuclear weapons] so that countries like the US, which want to keep the issue alive, cannot insist on further concessions from the North," he adds.

For its part, the US has tried to encourage the North to allow allow inspections by withdrawing its tactical nuclear weapons from the South last year and by suspending this year's joint military exercises with South Korea.

With those two measures, in addition to the bilateral talks in Beijing, North Korea believes it has won three big concessions.

"We made a big [nuclear] bluff and we caught three tigers," Dr. Han quotes a North Korean official from the Institute of Peace and Disarmament in Pyongyang as saying. Such concessions help the regime rationalize to North Koreans how it can backtrack on its anti-US stance.

But long-held beliefs about the US "imperialists" will not be discarded easily, North Korean officials warn.

When asked why North Korean leader Kim Il Sung claims credit for defeating Japan in World War II while ignoring the large US role, Deputy Premier Kim Dal Hyun shoots back: "We don't recognize the US as the liberator of our country."

But then, after a moment's reflection, he adds: "To improve our relationship with the US, we should say this frankly."

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