By Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) - "Rat" and "bastard" are two of the more personal insults that have been flung at South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in recent days by North Korea's media, along with threats to "exterminate" him and reduce the South's capital to ashes.
The rhetoric has alarmed Seoul which has stepped up security and comes as North Korea recently showcased its military might in a parade to celebrate its founder's birth and is believed to be readying a third nuclear test that could threaten regional security.
Far from being a real threat to assassinate South Korea's president, as the North attempted in 1968 and 1974, the anti-Lee propaganda featuring crude effigies of him being crushed by a tank, is designed largely for domestic consumption to prop up the image of the North's new leader, Kim Jong-un.
"North Korean media simply want to divert all attention to the outside world so people can forget why they are hungry," said Chang Hae-song, a former reporter and soap opera writer for North Korea's state-run TV.
Chang now lives in Seoul. He fled North Korea after being sentenced to three months hard labor for missing the "Sung" out of North Korea's founder Kim Il-sung's name, a sign of how seriously the reclusive state takes its founding family.
Lee has questioned the cost of the 100th birthday celebrations, saying the money could have been better used to feed the North's malnourished population and has criticized a recent failed rocket launch as a waste of money.
North Korea experienced a massive famine in the 1990s that killed almost a million people. One third of its children are chronically malnourished or stunted, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.
State news agency KCNA said Lee's criticisms had "lashed the army and people of the DPRK (North Korea) into the greatest fury as they regard the dignity of the supreme leadership as dearer than their own lives".
Although there are few signs that the family that has ruled North Korea since 1953 is in danger of losing its grip on power, it does face challenges its founder could not have foreseen.
There are around a million cellphones in North Korea, thanks to a 3G network run by Egyptian company Orascom, and smuggled DVDs show South Korean soap operas and the high standard of living in the prosperous South.
"Of course, people inside the North hear things outside now. But it is still hard to break the mindset that they are born with," said Sohn Jung-hoon, a ex-North Korean government official who arrived in the South in 2002.
"Because the regime won't stop brainwashing and saying that poverty is because of our enemies."
(Editing by David Chance and Ron Popeski)