Seoul brushes off North Korea's 'bland' new year message

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2013, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 January, 2013, 9:05pm

South Korea on Wednesday played down a rare new year’s message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “bland” despite his apparent overture to Seoul about reducing tensions.

But analysts said Kim’s call for a “radical turnabout” in his impoverished country’s economy could signal a more determined push for reforms to the moribund state-directed system.

“The message was bland and there were no ground-breaking proposals,” Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik, who handles cross-border affairs, told reporters.

Kim’s speech Tuesday was the first of its kind for 19 years, since the death of his grandfather and the North’s founding president Kim Il-sung. His late father Kim Jong-il almost never addressed large public gatherings.

The young leader stressed the need to build up the economy and ease tensions with the South.

“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,” he said.

“The past records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war.”

Kim praised the North’s successful long-range rocket launch last month, and said a similar national effort was now needed to strengthen the economy and improve living standards.

The year next year will be one of “great creations and changes in which a radical turnabout will be effected”, he said, adding that “the building of an economic giant is the most important task” facing the country.

He offered no details of how life could be bettered in his nation, where millions struggle daily to feed themselves, according to UN agencies. Industries battle crippling shortages of power and raw materials.

There were reports last year of policy trials, including incentives for workers and farmers to boost productivity.

One reported change would see the North’s regime taking only 70 per cent of the harvest from collective farms, allowing farmers to keep or sell the rest.

But a rare parliamentary session ended last September with no mention of such moves.

However, analysts said the speech could signal a renewed focus on limited change.

“Kim Jong-un’s New Year speech hints that North Korea will be much more active in pursuing economic reform this year, especially after he successfully consolidated his grip on his people through the rocket launch,” said Chang Yong-seok of Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification.

Chang told reporters the North was likely to introduce greater incentives for farms and factories and ease state controls over businesses.

It might also actively attract foreign investment, especially from China, in special economic zones.

Kim was putting great emphasis on improving people’s livelihoods, political science professor Yoo Ho-Yeol of Korea University told Yonhap news agency.

Yang Moo-Jin, of Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said the general tone of Kim’s speech was positive.

“It might signal limited economic reforms this year and also sends a message to South Korea’s incoming president about a desire for improved cross-border relations,” Yang told AFP Tuesday.

President-elect Park Geun-hye, who will take office in South Korea in February, has signalled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang.

But minister Yu remained cautious.

Kim’s remarks may have been aimed at new or transitional leaderships in China, Japan and South Korea, but Seoul had good historical reasons for treating peace overtures warily, he said.

Efforts to engage Pyongyang with “good intentions” in the past had made little progress, Yu said.