N. Korea Sees Itself as Land of Righteousness

Times Staff Writer

A dictator madly threatens the rest of the world with his nuclear arsenal, thumbing his nose at international agreements and selling nuclear and biological weapons to fellow rogue states as he lords it over a nation of starving people.

This -- give or take a detail or two -- is the perception many outsiders have of North Korea these days as they try to make sense of the isolated state.

The North has rattled global nerves in recent weeks by admitting to an atomic weapons program, expelling nuclear inspectors, disabling surveillance cameras and threatening to pull out of a global pact designed to limit the spread of nuclear arms.

It ratcheted up the pressure Saturday by issuing a vaguely worded threat that it would take necessary countermeasures to perceived U.S. hostility. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, meanwhile, is expected to issue a strong condemnation soon of the regime in Pyongyang, although agency officials hold out hope that the North will allow inspectors back in before the IAEA takes the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

Turn the tables, however, and you see a very different picture of North Korea, say experts who have spent much of their life watching every twist and turn of the hermit kingdom.

While the West views North Korea as a global laggard in bringing democracy, better living standards and even food to its people, analysts say North Korea looks abroad and sees decadence, soft thinking and moral depravity in the so-called new world order.

And while many in the United States believe that the world's only superpower is doing mankind a great service by ensuring global stability and preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands, North Korea sees a bully bent on global domination.

A prevalent view in North Korea is that, with no one to check U.S. power, there's little standing in Washington's way as it shapes the post-Cold War world in its own image and makes new rules to strengthen its own control. Anyone who threatens that order -- and North Korea feels it is in the cross hairs -- faces being crushed, Pyongyang believes.

"The present situation is very serious and unpredictable," North Korea's official KCNA news agency said Saturday. North Korea "cannot but take a strong countermeasure by itself in defense of the sovereignty of the country and the right to existence."

Outside North Korea, many see a regime that's used what little economic strength it has to manufacture weapons of mass destruction rather than grow food, make clothing or build houses for its people.

For North Korea, however, these weapons are synonymous with national sovereignty, analysts say. They entitle North Korea to play what it feels is a deserved role on the world stage. How else could a country with a GDP the size of some U.S. counties' be taken seriously?

"The nuclear card is very valuable to them," said Song Young Sun, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses. "Without it, they're just another poor, ignored country, a ... Rwanda, Somalia -- even maybe less valuable than Somalia."

Outsiders see a rogue state not content to create trouble at home but intent on spreading weapons to questionable states such as Yemen.

What others call weapons proliferation, however, Pyongyang sees as both an essential source of cash -- the arms trade is a huge and legal global business after all -- and as part of a struggle to oppose the bullying of the United States.

While most of the world deplores the mismatch between North Korea's relatively enormous military sector and its impoverished people, who have died of starvation by the thousands over the last decade, North Korea sees a situation that involves more than comfort, consumer niceties or even food in its people's bellies. According to this view, it involves the highest of ideals -- the willingness to sacrifice and struggle for self-reliance, or juche.

"They don't buy into the prevalent capitalist view," said Lee Hang Koo, an analyst with the South Korean military intelligence service. "South Korea feels superior because its economy is 27 times greater than North Korea's. But that doesn't mean they're 27 times better or happier."

A recurring question around the world is how North Korea, or at least its leadership, can ignore the rapid advance of democracy as communism shrivels. The Soviet Union's implosion led the way, while China is now beating the capitalists at their own game.

For many North Koreans, however, who were weaned on a home-grown ideology, theirs is the last pure state. Certainly there are problems, but the first order for any state is survival, particularly a communist state in such an epic fight. Prosperity can wait for another day.

President Bush has made no secret of his personal dislike for North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and the "axis of evil" state he heads. Three days ago, Bush told reporters near Crawford, Texas, "I have no heart for someone who starves his folks."

But while the homespun personal approach is a Bush hallmark, it may be counterproductive if the president is trying to separate the leadership from its people, analysts say. Kim Jong Il and the state are one to many North Koreans, and Bush may only strengthen North Korean resolve and prevent internal contradictions from becoming manifest.

For many in the West, North Korea is a country that continues to break its word and disregard international treaties as its people appear to swallow the propaganda they're fed. These observers point to North Korea's disregard for the 1994 Agreed Framework signed in Geneva, under which it pledged to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and to its admission of a uranium-based weapons program.

From North Korea's perspective, however, uranium research was never covered under the 1994 deal, which was limited to the nation's plutonium program. Atomic activities were covered in general terms under an earlier joint Korean declaration, but most of that pact's terms weren't implemented by either side. Nor, in North Korea's view, are inter-Korean issues much of Washington's business anyway.

Washington intimated even before the current standoff that it was reluctant to complete two promised nuclear reactors in the North, amid suggestions that it sealed the 1994 deal to do so on the expectation that the country would soon collapse.

Furthermore, the U.S. never allowed an exchange of representative offices in the two nations' capitals, as it had agreed. And it recently cut off promised fuel oil shipments to the North in the middle of the winter as the deal unraveled.

From Pyongyang's perspectives, these are more than enough broken promises to go around.

"The Bush administration is now talking about dialogue, that they have no intention of attacking" us, said Choe Jin Su, North Korea's ambassador to China, during a rare news conference Friday. "But who can believe these words?"

The threatened next step for North Korea is to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This, many outsiders believe, would only confirm the regime's deceitfulness and ill intentions. Morality aside, however, experts say North Korea is within its rights. States are free to pull out of international treaties if those pacts no longer serve their national interests.

When the United States debated entering the World Trade Organization, many reluctant members of Congress took comfort in the knowledge that the country could withdraw at any time if Americans, on balance, were getting a raw deal.

"I'm not going to argue with people who say North Korea is bad," said Scott Snyder, the Seoul representative of the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation. "But there it is a bit hypocritical, when other countries do exactly the same thing."

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