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N. Korea Uses Anti-American Sentiments to Promote National Cohesion

Tensions between North Korea and the United States have existed for decades - preceding the current friction over Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Analysts suggest Pyongyang heavily promotes the United States as a powerful and aggressive enemy to help the authoritarian government of Kim Jong Il legitimize its rule in a communist country devastated by mismanagement. VOA's Luis Ramirez visited North Korea and reports anti-American sentiment is pervasive.

From the cradle, North Koreans are taught to fear, hate, and distrust the United States. Those sentiments were evident in the words of a guide at Pyongyang's war museum, who said her country is right to not allow very many American people to visit.

"We can't believe Americans, because until nowadays, we [are] damaged by the Americans, damaged very greatly," she said. "They intruded into our country and they killed some people, they shoot guns and plundered; and every time, the Americans they act badly in front of our people. So, we cannot believe them. So, we cannot allow [them to visit]."

She took a small group of American reporters through the museum this past October, pointing to exhibits that claim the United States started the Korean War and engaged in biological warfare - two allegations that historians outside North Korea describe as pure fabrications, unsupported by independent accounts.

But with Pyongyang prohibiting any access to outside information, North Koreans believe what they read in their history books.

Analysts say the government of Kim Jong Il sees promoting anti-American sentiments as necessary to national cohesion, which is under pressure from a collapsed economy and the effects of famine.

East Asia security expert Robert Ross at Boston College says this is evident in the constant media propaganda from the Kim government, as well as how much of its scant resources it spends on a huge standing army it says it may need to fight its Cold War enemy, the United States.

"I believe it feels it has no choice," said Mr. Ross. "There may be spillover in that it does enable it to mobilize the population, but when North Korea controls the media the way it does, it can manufacture enemies any time it wants."

When President Bush in 2002 named North Korea a part of an "Axis of Evil," analysts say the Pyongyang leadership found a new opportunity to paint America as the enemy. Since then, the Kim government has said it was developing nuclear weapons out of fear of an American attack.

Mr. Bush has repeatedly made clear that the United States has no intention to invade or attack the North and is seeking a peaceful end to the North Korean nuclear crisis through international negotiations.

North Korean Army Lieutenant Colonel Kim Gwan Gil accompanied American reporters on a bus to the De-Militarized Zone last month. He clearly does not believe American assurances. He says he considers U.S. demands for North Korean nuclear disarmament an assault on North Korea's pride.

"Do the Americans think that the Korean people have no self-respect," he asked. "We cannot accept that the United States tells us to take the first step. We Koreans value our dignity."

At the heavily guarded demarcation line separating North and South Korea, within view of U.S. soldiers guarding the border, Lieutenant Colonel Kim defends his government's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

"We must defend ourselves," he said. "If the United States continues to carry on its hostile policy toward our country, we must prepare ourselves to deal with them. We must build up our defenses a hundredfold."

North Koreans have been ambiguous in their definition of the term "hostile policy," but it often refers to Pyongyang's anger over the presence of more than 30,000 U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula. The troops have been stationed there since the end of the Korean War in 1953 to help protect South Korea from a possible attack by communist forces from the North.

The troops have remained there at the request of the South Korean government, a fact that North Korean officials do not acknowledge. They portray the U.S. presence as the sole cause for the continued division of the peninsula.

At a remote observation post near the South Korean border, North Korean Army Lieutenant Kang Ho Sep illustrated the point by putting his arms around a reporter's waist and giving him a hard squeeze. The officer asked the reporter, "Do you feel comfortable if I squeeze your waist like this?" He likened the pain to that felt by the Korean people over having their peninsula divided.

Despite the official acrimony against Americans, some North Koreans who were allowed to have contact with a group of American journalists said they would like to visit the United States someday. Some privately said they admire America's economic might and its technological innovations such as the Internet, to which most North Koreans have no access.

A few North Koreans do get small glimpses of American life through smuggled movies and other information. The elite here appear to have access to American films, because Kim Jong Il is reported to be quite a movie buff.

At the end of the reporters' bus journey, a group of North Korean government minders sang a theme song from a popular Hollywood film, Titanic.