South Korea's foreign minister urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week to tone down U.S. rhetoric about North Korea. Pyongyang has frequently given the Bush administration's choice of tough language about the North Korean regime as the reason it refuses to return to nuclear disarmament talks. Pyongyang is no stranger to tough talk.

In a rare venture into comedy, North Korean state media produced a radio feature last month called, The Hen Clucks at the White House. The "hen" of the title refers to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who angered North Korea by referring to the country some time back as an "outpost of tyranny."

The radio program aims for laughter, but Pyongyang's tone in demanding an apology from Ms. Rice has been anything but humorous. North Korea says, without an apology, it will not end its year-long boycott of six-nation talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons capabilities.

It may sound like an excuse to avoid the talks, but Asia experts say "face" (image), and a show of respect, are genuinely important to the isolated North Korean regime. The leadership has often cited Bush administration comments about the North and its leaders in complaining about what it calls Washington's hostile attitude.

At the same time, however, Pyongyang has historically made little or no effort to restrain its own brand of robust invective against the United States and other perceived enemies.

In a recent English language broadcast, North Korea's Central News Agency lashed out at U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, after he described North Korea as an unhappy country.

"It proves that he is really an illiterate, who is totally ignorant of diplomacy and the process of dialogue and negotiation," said North Korean spokesman. "Rumsfeld, who knows nothing but war, had better take a rifle in hand and go to Iraq, if there's nothing to do."

And that was relatively modest language. North Korean media described Vice President Dick Cheney as a "bloodthirsty beast" after he referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il as "irresponsible."

Two years ago, after U.S. State Department official John Bolton described life in North Korea as a "hellish nightmare," North Korean media labeled him "human scum" and a "bloodsucker."

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar who grew up in the former Soviet Union, says Pyongyang has used extreme rhetoric for decades. He says the Soviets, no strangers to harsh propaganda themselves, bought tens of thousands of North Korean magazines in the 1960s and '70s, to get a laugh at Pyongyang's expense.

"They were hilarious, because they were hilariously bad, hysterical propaganda," said Andrei Lankov.

Mr. Lankov, now at Seoul's Kookmin University, says North Korea's use of terms like "imperialist bastards" to describe the United States has been current for so long, it has basically become normal speech in the North.

"And it has become hard-wired into the brains of the people, I mean the journalists who write this stuff," he said.

A privately-run Web site, called pokes fun at Pyongyang's long history of harsh rhetoric. The site features a random insult generator that draws from a database of articles from the North Korean Central News Agency. At the click of a button, the site will call the computer user an "arrogant warmonger," a "sycophantic lackey," and so on.

South Korea, which engaged in its own harsh propaganda about the North until the 1980s, now pursues a policy of engagement and reconciliation with Pyongyang. It avoids provoking North Korea verbally in any way.

Moon Chung-in is an advisor to President Roh Moo-hyun's on North-South issues. He says choosing words carefully is crucial in making any diplomatic gains with North Korea.

"For North Korea, more than any country in the world, face-saving rhetorics are very important," said Moon Chung-in. "Sometimes, they can be more important than substance per se."

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the top U.S. delegate to the six-nation talks, says the issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons is too important to be derailed by matters of vocabulary. He also says the Bush administration will not refrain from speaking truthfully about the North Korean government, which is believed to be one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.

"I don't think anyone should expect us to be silent on human rights issues," said Christopher Hill. "Because these are issues of international concern, and, frankly, they're issues of universal concern."

South Korean and U.S. leaders say, ultimately, it is substance, not talk, that matters most in nuclear diplomacy with the North. They say North Korea must not only return to the discussion table, but be willing to uphold its previous international pledges to be nuclear weapons-free.

It can't be said much more simply than that.