Seoul, South Korea Sensing an opportunity in widespread anti-American sentiment in South Korea, North Korea urged South Koreans on Wednesday to back its confrontation with the United States over its nuclear program.
"It can be said that there exists on the Korean Peninsula at present only confrontation between the Koreans in the North and the South and the United States," the communist state said in its New Year's message.
It is North Korea's long-standing strategy to drive a wedge between Seoul and its chief ally, Washington. But its emphasis on "cooperation" with South Korea comes at a time when Seoul is criticizing a possible U.S. plan to use economic sanctions to force North Korea to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.
North Korea's overtures also are driven by economic needs, experts said.
Under President Kim Dae-jung's "sunshine" policy of engaging North Korea, South Korea has launched a series of unfinished inter-Korean projects, including a cross-border rail link and tourist and industrial parks, that would bring the impoverished North badly needed investment.
North Korea, which can hardly feed its 22 million people without outside relief, risked losing key sources of aid in the recent weeks by expelling U.N. inspectors and threatening to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to free its nuclear facilities from international controls.
"North Korea has been digging deeper into isolation these days, and the United States is pouring hot water into the hole to force it to come out," said Koh Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert in Seoul's Dongkuk University.
"At this hard time, North Korea increasingly sees that South Korea is its only friend, as it tries to avoid the brunt of U.S. diplomatic pressure," Koh said.
Although North Korea's recent decision to reactivate its nuclear program angered much of the world, it stirred little reaction among ordinary South Koreans. U.S. officials say North Korea may use its nuclear facilities to build atomic bombs.
In recent years, however, North Korea has revamped its image among many South Koreans as it engaged in a series of reconciliation projects, such as reunions of aging Koreans separated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
"It is an urgent national task to avert the danger of war and preserve peace on the Korean Peninsula at present," North Korea's New Year's message said, accusing the United States of preparing to launch a "pre-emptive nuclear attack" on it.
"There is neither reason nor condition for the fellow countrymen to strain the situation and disturb peace against the fellow countrymen as the North and the South are heading for reconciliation, unity and reunification," said the message, carried on the country's foreign news outlet, Korean Central News Agency.
Both South Korean President Kim and President-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who takes office in late February, insist that North Korea not develop nuclear weapons.
But they have expressed concern that Washington might impose heavy economic pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions, and that this could backfire and harden the North's stance.
On Wednesday, a senior South Korean diplomat arrived in Beijing to seek China's support in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Lee Tae-sik, South Korea's deputy foreign minister, will meet Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing today, South Korean officials said.
South Korea also plans to send a vice foreign minister to Moscow later this week. China and Russia are virtually the only countries that maintain friendly ties with the communist North, and they have urged a peaceful solution to the rising tension.
Some South Koreans worry that the nuclear dispute could trigger armed conflict on the peninsula. More than 2 million troops are massed on both sides of the Korean border. About 37,000 U.S. soldiers back the South Koreans.
President Bush said Tuesday that he was confident the North's nuclear issue could be resolved through diplomacy and denied that a rift was developing with South Korea.
"This is not a military showdown. This is a diplomatic showdown," Bush said.
Anti-U.S. sentiment is evident on the streets of Seoul. Thousands of South Koreans have joined street rallies to protest the deaths of two teenage girls accidentally killed in June by a U.S. military vehicle.
The protesters also denounced U.S. policy toward the North, and some demanded an end to the U.S. military presence in South Korea.
North Korea recently removed monitoring seals and cameras from its nuclear facility at Yongbyon that was frozen under a deal with the United States in 1994. It says it would resolve concerns over its nuclear program if the United States signs a nonaggression treaty, but Washington has ruled out any talks before the North changes course.
One of the two nuclear inspectors expelled by North Korea, Missak Demirdjian, arrived Wednesday at Vienna's Schwechat airport on a flight from Beijing. He fended off all questions, saying only: "We, of course, hope to go back as soon as possible."