N Korea calls for reunification

N Korea calls for reunification

N Korea calls for reunification

A South Korean army soldier reads messages wishing for reunification of the two Koreas on ribbons hanging on the wire fence near the border of South Korea. N Korean leader Kim (inset) offers an olive branch to Seoul in his New Year’s speech. AP photo

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for an end to confrontation between the two Koreas and a “radical turnabout” in the impoverished country’s economy in a surprise New Year’s speech broadcast on state media.

Kim’s speech was the first of its kind in nearly two decades, coming 19 years after the death of his grandfather and the North’s founding president, Kim Il-sung, who routinely addressed his people on New Year’s Day. The speech itself was a signal that Kim will continue with a leadership style more in line with his gregarious grandfather than with his father and the country’s previous ruler, Kim Jong-il, who avoided making public speeches. He never gave a TV address during his 17-year-rule, and his New Year’s messages were published as joint editorials in the nation’s three major newspapers.

“An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontation between the north and the south,” Kim said in the address that appeared to be pre-recorded and was made at an undisclosed location. “The past records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war.”

The address will be closely scrutinized in South Korea, which has just elected its first woman president, the conservative Park Geun-hye, who has signaled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang.

Park has distanced herself from outgoing President Lee Myung-bak’s hard-line policy toward Pyongyang. But in her first policy statement following her election victory last month, Park made it clear she still saw Pyongyang as a serious threat and would put national security before any trust-building program.

“[Kim’s statement] apparently contains a message that he has an intention to dispel the current face-off [between the two Koreas], which could eventually be linked with the North’s call for aid [from the South],” said Kim Tae-woo, a North Korea expert at the state-funded Korea Institute for National Unification. “But such a move does not necessarily mean any substantive change in the North Korean regime’s policy toward the South.”

The two Koreas have seen tensions rise to the highest level in decades after the North bombed a southern island in 2010, killing two civilians and two soldiers. The sinking of a South Korean Navy ship earlier that year was blamed on the North but Pyongyang has denied it and accused Seoul of waging a smear campaign against its leadership.

No shift in father’s policy

The year 2013 will be one of “great creations and changes in which a radical turnabout will be effected,” Kim said, adding that “the building of an economic giant is the most important task” facing the country. Kim made it clear that building the economy did not mean a complete shift away from his father’s “military first” policy. “The military might of a country represents its national strength. Only when it builds up its military might in every way can it develop into a thriving country,” he said.

Praising the success of the country’s space scientists in launching a long-range rocket last month, Kim said a similar national effort was now needed on the economic front. “The entire party, the whole country and all the people should wage an all-out struggle this year to affect a turnaround in building an economic giant and improving the people’s standard of living,” he said. Kim made no mention of the North’s nuclear weapons program, despite growing speculation.