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North Koreans Get Daily Serving of Anti-U.S. Diatribes

"Let's exterminate our sworn enemy U.S. imperialists!" reads a slogan inside North Korean jet cockpits, sailors' cabins and army guard posts. In schools, teachers tell students Americans are "two-legged wolves" and the United States is a "hotbed of all evils swarming with beggars."

From kindergarten children to People's Army troops, hatred toward Americans is part of life in the impoverished, Stalinist state that gets much of its international aid from the country it despises.

The isolated regime's bellicose rhetoric reached a new pitch in the past week, when North Korea escalated its nuclear standoff with Washington, warning of a "Third World War," "a sea of fire" and a "holy war" against the United States.

"It's hardly new to me," says Lee Jae-gun, a South Korea fisherman who was kidnapped to North Korea and lived there 30 years until escaping in 2000. "It's a daily fodder in North Korea. The first thing you hear when you wake up for the day is some form of diatribe against the Americans."

Defectors from North Korea describe the country as an Orwellian place built on three pillars: a personality cult surrounding leader Kim Jong Il, Stalinism and hatred of anything American.

Kang Chul Hwan, who defected to South Korea in 1992, remembers textbooks telling the tale of an American missionary tattooing "Thief" on a Korean boy who picked an apple from his orchard. Animated cartoons depict Americans as sharp-toothed wolves.

Cho Myong Chul, who defected to Seoul in 1994, recalls that hurling rocks at the effigy of a U.S. soldier was a schoolyard sport.

The animosity originates from the 1950-53 Korean War, during which U.S. troops fought for South Korea, and is cultivated by communist leaders, says Cho, 44, a college professor from North Korea who now works at Seoul's Korea Institute for International Economic Policy.

"If you rule a destitute country with a personality cult, you must present the people with something to hate," Cho said. "It's brainwashing."

North Korea's propaganda machines turn up the volume when foreign relations deteriorate and the regime needs to heighten the sense of crisis to exhort its hungry populace to rally around the leadership.

Although it remains deep-rooted, the decades-old indoctrination began fraying in recent years as North Korea's economy crumbled and a trickle of people went to China to seek food and returned with different portrayals of the United States, defectors said.

The propaganda has been so pervasive that it helped create a "whole new linguistic culture" both militaristic and anti-American, Cho said. North Korean news media brim with hostile slogans and TV commentators almost always speak in raised, militant voices.

A popular curse, Lee said, is "'I will kill you like an American imperialist."'

Last Saturday, North Korea claimed more than 1 million people turned out for a rally in Pyongyang and vowed to fight a "holy war" against the United States, which has branded it part of an "axis of evil."

"The worst part of such a rally is that we had to be there early," Kang said. "People spent hours practicing the slogans."

North Korea runs a museum south of Pyongyang where teachers take children to watch gory scenes of Korean villagers burned at stakes and other alleged American atrocities during the Korean War. Children emerge vowing to fight Americans, defectors say.

"Isolated as they are from the outside, they can't make independent judgments about what the state tells them," Cho says.

Yoo Sang Joon, 40, who arrived in South Korea in late 2000, said he used to believe New York streets were ruled by gangsters and crawling with beggars.

When North Korea struck a deal with the United States in 1994 to freeze its suspected nuclear program in return for fuel oil and two multibillion-dollar nuclear power plants, North Korea advertised it as a major diplomatic feat of Kim Jong Il.

"Party officials told us that the Americans kneeled down before the Great General Kim Jong Il begging for a deal," said Yoo.

North Korea regularly boasts it can eliminate the Americans "to the last one if the U.S. war maniacs infringe upon our fatherland by one inch."

The United States and its allies brush away such reckless bravado.

With its centrally planned economy in shambles, North Korea has depended on outside aid to feed its 22 million people since the mid-1990s.

Yet, its military power remains unsettling. Its rockets can reach South Korea and Japan. North Korea's suspected attempts to assemble nuclear weapons have been accentuated by its decision to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty last week.

Besides its 1.2 million-strong regular army, the world's fifth-largest, North Korea maintains a vast pool of reserve troops. All factory workers take part in annual two-week military training.

"Party officials said North Korea's rockets can fly to the mainland United States," Lee said. "They said that with a lot of pride in their voice."