In South Korea, Kim Jong-un's New Year speech generates surprise - and doubt

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for economic reform and expressed a wish to improve relations with South Korea, departing from the usual North Korea rhetoric.

KRT via AP Video/AP
In this Tuesday, Jan. 1, image made from video, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at podium in Pyongyang, North Korea. Making his first New Year's speech, Kim called Tuesday for his country to focus on economic improvements with the same urgency that scientists put into the launch of a long-range rocket last month.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un signaled his desire for improved relations with South Korea in a New Year’s Day address that South Korean officials see as an unsatisfying attempt to appear conciliatory.

A day after Kim Jong-un stressed the need for resolving North-South confrontation, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan responded Wednesday by calling for North Korea to make “wise and right decisions” by coordinating with “neighboring countries.”

Kim’s address was noteworthy for both the absence of the type of recriminations that characterize North Korean rhetoric and also because Kim Jong-un seized the occasion to speak publicly.

The address, broadcast by North Korean state radio and television, was also noteworthy for another reason: Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011, never delivered a New Year’s address. His grandfather, “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, last addressed his nation on New Year’s day in 1994, about six months before his death.

The relative restraint of Kim Jong-un’s remarks – and the fact that he made them in person, not in a written statement in the official North Korean media – strikes analysts as a positive sign despite contrary indications of rising North-South confrontation.

“The language was tempered,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the nonproliferation program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “It wasn’t over the top like so much North Korean propaganda.”

Mr. Kim, in an address that also focused on the economy, called on South Korea’s “antireunification forces” to “abandon their hostile policy against their fellow countrymen” and pursue “national reconciliation, unity, and reunification.”

While those words are staples of North Korean rhetoric, they were bereft of mention of South Korea’s outgoing president, Lee Myung-bak, or the incoming president, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the long-ruling dictator Park Chung-hee.

North Korea has repeatedly attacked Mr. Lee with vitriolic language, castigating both him and Ms. Park for suggesting the North give up its missile and nuclear programs as a prerequisite for resuming the massive shipments of food and fertilizer sent by the South during the decade of the Sunshine policy from 1998 to 2008.

Kim Jong-un suggested the need to go back to that era by mentioning the joint declarations signed by South Korean presidents during summits with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in June 2000 and October 2007. The late Kim Dae-jung pursued the Sunshine policy as president of South Korea from 1998 to 2003, and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, carried on the policy from 2003 to 2008, at which point the conservative Lee reversed course after a landslide victory over a liberal foe.

Kim Jong-un’s address may hint that North Korea might be willing, in the interest of resumed aid, to concede to South Korean conditions – such as avoiding harsh personal rhetoric, much less threats to attack South Korea in the Yellow Sea, the scene of periodic bloodshed, or across the demilitarized zone that has divided the Koreas since the Korean War ended in an armistice in July 1953.

Nonetheless, South Korean officials did not seem immediately receptive. South Korea’s unification minister, Yoo Woo-ik, described Kim Jong-un’s remarks as “bland” – with “no ground-breaking proposals.”

Mr. Fitzpatrick, a former senior nonproliferation official at the US State Department, cautions against taking Kim Jong-un’s remarks as a sharp shift in North Korean policy. “I didn’t read it as an olive branch,” he says. “I read it as presidential” – a sign that Kim wants to project a statesmanlike image as he enters his second year in power.

Park Geun-hye, while interested in resuming dialogue with North Korea, has said she is willing to authorize “humanitarian” aid to North Korea. She is expected to calibrate humanitarian aid depending on the North’s responses.

Rhetoric on both sides is likely to intensify as South Korea takes a seat this month on the UN Security Council as a nonpermanent member for a two-year term. South Korea has called for strengthening sanctions against the North as punishment for firing a long-range missile last month that put a small satellite into orbit. The Security Council imposed sanctions after the North conducted an underground nuclear test in May 2009, but the North continued to receive food, fuel, and other aid from China.

Fitzpatrick believes increased sanctions may have a negative effect. “There might be a nuclear device tested again,” he warns, noting that North Korea appears to have completed most preparations for its third such test. The North conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.

Still, he sees Kim Jong-un’s speech as indicating his desire to rein in the North’s military establishment. “Three times he talked about uniting around the Workers’ Party,” he says. “That’s in keeping with the need to rebalance power. The subtext is to obey the party.”

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