Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - North Korea has shrugged off President Bush's denouncement of its policies during his State of the Union address, amid expressions of concern from South Korea that the U.S. stance may harm efforts at reconciliation in the divided peninsula.
"The U.S. loudmouthed threat ... is sophism intended to justify its military presence in South Korea and persistently pursue the policy of aggression against [North Korea]," Pyongyang's official Central News Agency said in a commentary.
The ruling party's mouthpiece, Rodong Sinmun, accused the U.S. of wanting to "swallow up the whole of Korea and, furthermore, put Asia under its military domination."
"As long as the U.S. forces remain in South Korea, it is impossible to preserve peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and clear it of the danger of war," it added.
In his speech, Bush said states like North Korea, Iran and Iraq, along with their terrorist allies, formed an "axis of evil" which threatened world peace, and that terrorist nations could not be left "unchecked."
"North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens," he said.
Although North Korea - along with Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Cuba - has long been listed as a terror-sponsoring state by the State Department, Bush's broadside has raised concerns in South Korea, coming at the time of a new initiative aimed at improving ties with the communist north.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has just appointed a new Unification Minister, replacing an incumbent who had frequently been blamed by the North Koreans for delays in north-south dialogue.
Kim has also asked Russia to persuade Pyongyang to re-open dialogue, and has proposed new talks with the north on reuniting families divided since the Korean War.
Shortly after assuming the presidency, Bush expressed skepticism about the likelihood of North Korea complying with any future agreements on its missile program, and said he would not resume talks on the subject, initiated under the Clinton administration, in the near future.
Pyongyang had hoped to bargain for food and other aid in return for stopping developing and exporting missile technology.
Kim hopes President Bush's visit to Seoul next month will herald a change in Washington's policy toward the north, and so boost his "sunshine policy" of reconciliation.
In his response to the address, Kim told ministers South Korea's economic future depended on north-south relations.
And his new Unification Minister, Jeong Se-hyun, also reacted cautiously to Bush's comments, saying they should be understood within the context of America's campaign against terrorism.
Speaking during an inauguration ceremony, he also voiced doubt that the U.S. would act against North Korea as it had against Iraq, because of "the geopolitical situation and relations between Seoul and Washington."
Jeong also predicted that inter-Korean talks would resume soon.
Some South Korean commentators expressed concern about the effect Bush's statements could have on the reconciliation process.
The Chosun Ilbo daily in an editorial compared Bush's "axis of evil" comments with President Reagan's characterization of the former Soviet Union as the "Evil Empire."
"It was not the first time President Bush mentioned North Korea in the same context as Iran and Iraq and their weapons of mass destruction, but it is out of the ordinary when he does it in front of the U.S. people and the world as something close to an open and official policy declaration."
Although North Korea may not become the next target in the U.S. war against terrorism, Washington-Pyongyang relations will probably not improve as hoped, it said.
"One can also not exclude the possibility that, depending on the North's reaction, there might be new tension on the Korean peninsula," the paper added.
The paper said there was a massive difference between the way the U.S. perceives North Korea and the way the South Korean government sees it.
"The current government seems to want to think its Northern policy is something entirely unrelated with the U.S.'s policy of preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," it said.
It remained to be seen whether these differences would be ironed out during Bush's visit to Seoul on Feb. 19.
Another paper, JoongAng Ilbo, said it was concerned that Bush's view could negatively effect north-south ties.
"Maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula is a matter of life and death to us and is closely linked to regional and global stability. Under such circumstances, a dialogue among Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang and healing our own domestic wounds over North Korea policy are important," the paper said.
At the same time, the paper urged Kim not to appease North Korea in a way that would make the regime there "more wayward and domineering."
In other reaction, both Iran and Iraq rejected Bush's accusations.
"We regard Mr. Bush's remarks as interfering, war-mongering, a repetition of previous propaganda, and worst of all insulting to the great Iranian nation," the Tehran Times quoted Iranian President Mohammed Khatami as saying.
"The Iranian people will never bow to foreigners and we are opposed to war and support peace - a peace based on justice for the entire human race."
Khatami, generally described as a "moderate," said he believed American leaders were "in an abyss created by the Zionists."
"Today, the United States has increased its support for the Zionist regime [Israel], which does not hesitate to commit every form of crime against the oppressed Palestinian nation, the most oppressed people in the world."
"The United States is the only country in the world, along with the Zionist entity, to practice state terrorism against peoples and governments that do not surrender to U.S. wishes, under the pretext of fighting the sources of terrorism," Iraqi lawmaker Salem al-Qubaissi, head of a parliamentary commission on Arab and international relations, told a European news agency.
In his address, Bush accused Iran of pursuing weapons of mass destruction and exporting terror, "while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom."
He said Iraq, which had already used poison gas to kill thousands of its own citizens, has been working for more than a decade to develop non-conventional weapons.
"The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that Bush had by his remarks not been "sending a signal that military action is imminent. But it's an expression of how serious the president takes protecting our country."
E-mail a news tip to Patrick Goodenough.
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