By Emily Alpert
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
1:46 PM EST, January 1, 2013
In an unusual televised address for the new year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called to defuse tensions with South Korea and boost the economy of his impoverished nation.
“An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontations between the north and the south,” Kim declared.
Almost anything emerging from the isolated North Korean regime is bound to be parsed by analysts seeking clues to its next steps, but it is striking that Kim gave such a speech at all.
His father, Kim Jong Il, rarely spoke in public and signaled his annual plans through state newspaper editorials; the younger Kim has cultivated a more accessible style since taking power, showing up in public with his young wife and repeatedly addressing the North Korean people on television. Such gestures seem reminiscent of his grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung, who routinely spoke on the new year.
Despite the call to make peace, some experts were skeptical that it signaled any dramatic shift by North Korea. The regime prizes its military might, Kim emphasized later in his speech, delivered just a few weeks after North Korea launched a rocket to loft a satellite into space.
The liftoff was condemned by South Korea and the U.S. as a cover for testing North Korea's missile technology. Japan has joined them in prodding the United Nations Security Council to step up pressure on the regime in response.
Dialing down tensions after the launch “could eventually be linked with the North's call for aid" from the South, Kim Tae-woo of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Unification told Reuters news service. "But such a move does not necessarily mean any substantive change in the North Korean regime's policy towards the South."
The South Korean Unification Ministry was similarly cautious, telling the Yonhap News Agency that the address fell in line with past North Korean policies.
[Updated 11:55 a.m. Jan. 1: “In many respects, this speech could have been any of the last dozen” messages issued for the New Year, said Marcus Noland, deputy director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Kim prodded South Korea to recognize agreements struck under earlier South Korean leaders that were later rejected, an idea unlikely to fly, Noland said.]
Kim also stressed the need to make North Korea “an economic giant” by building up agriculture and light industry.
[Updated 11:55 a.m. Jan. 1: Noland pointed out that there was no talk of economic reform, with Kim turning to “the same playbook of the last 50 years” in stressing hard work and scientific breakthroughs as the way for North Korea to advance.]
In his address, Kim stated: “All economic undertakings for this year should be geared to effecting a radical increase in production, and stabilizing and improving the people's living standards.”
After the successful rocket launch, the North Korean leader is expected to bolster livelihoods, Koh Yu-hwan, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in South Korea, told the Associated Press. South Korean statistics indicate that the North Korean economy grew in 2011 for the first time in three years, though incomes remain paltry compared to South Korea.It’s unclear, however, whether the economic push will pull North Korea from its “military first” stand, which Kim embraced in an April speech but has shown signs of deemphasizing since.
Until North Korea abandons that way of thinking, “no amount of sanctions or extent of ‘isolation’ can raise the costs sufficiently to persuade [North Korean leadership] to make a ‘strategic decision’ to denuclearize and embark on a path of greater prosperity for the North Korean people,” Daniel Pinkston of the International Crisis Group wrote last month.
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