N. Korea softens its tone ahead of six-party nuclear talks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SEOUL, South Korea - The tinny loudspeakers fell silent along the 148-mile demilitarized zone this past weekend as North Korea shut down a cross-border propaganda barrage by radio and megaphone that it started in 1970.

Seeking to make friends and influence countries before six-party talks over its nuclear weapons program, North Korea is easing tensions with the South, making clumsy overtures to Japan and trying to temper its trademark anti-American vitriol.

"Ultimately, the North Korean game is to split South Korea and other countries away from the United States," Marcus Noland, a Korea expert at the Institute for International Economics, said from Washington. "Ultimately, the North Koreans want their charm campaign to soften up South Korea and other countries and make them less likely to back the United States in any kind of coercive diplomacy."

North Korea still engages in a nasty tit-for-tat with the United States but even so tries to limit the damage.

On Sunday, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman called a top Bush administration official a "scum and human bloodsucker." But in the next breath, the diplomat emphasized in an interview with North Korea's news agency that there was "no change" in North Korea's intent to join the nuclear talks with the United States, which are expected to be held in Beijing early next month.

North Korea was responding to a speech delivered here Thursday by John Bolton, an undersecretary of state, in which he lambasted the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, by name 41 times.

"While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of his people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food," Bolton said of the North Korean leader. "For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare."

In response, North Korea demonstrated a skill at compartmentalizing, with the spokesman saying, "On the basis of a serious analysis of Bolton's outcries, in the light of his political vulgarity and psychopathological condition, as they are quite different from the recent remarks of the U.S. president, we have decided not to consider him as an official of the U.S. administration any longer nor to deal with him."

In addition to preparing to negotiate with Bolton's colleagues, though, the North Koreans are preparing a kind of pingpong diplomacy for the American public. In two weeks, North Korea's top gymnasts are to fly to Anaheim, Calif., to compete in a qualifying championship for the next year's Summer Olympics in Athens.

Turning to Japanese public opinion, North Korea is suddenly focusing on the 10-month drama of seven children who have been unable to follow their parents to Japan. The parents are Japanese who were kidnapped by North Korea many years ago and then finally acknowledged and allowed to return to Japan. On Sunday, the parents in Japan received their first letters and photos from their children, who remain in North Korea.

While the parents were happy to see photographs of the children, whom they had not seen since October, they said they doubted the spontaneity of the letters, which contained appeals to return to live in North Korea.

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