SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Making his first New Year’s speech, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un 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.
Kim, shown speaking on state TV, said lifting living standards is the new year’s most important task — a clear acknowledgement that North Koreans want improvement in an economy that has long lagged behind the rest of Northeast Asia.
He also pushed for the development of more advanced weapons, a “revolution” in science and technology and reunification with “compatriots” in South Korea, which elected a president last month who has vowed to open dialogue with Pyongyang after five years of tense ties.
The speech was the first televised New Year’s Day message by a North Korean leader in 19 years. North Korea founder Kim Il Sung routinely addressed his people on New Year’s Day, but Kim Jong Il never gave a TV address during his 17-year rule. During his leadership, the New Year’s message was published as a joint editorial in the nation’s three major newspapers.
North Korea also had its first grand New Year’s Eve celebration, with residents of the capital treated to the boom of cannons and fireworks at midnight.
The speech itself was a signal that Kim will continue with a leadership style more in line with his gregarious grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung, than with his father, Kim Jong Il, who avoided making public speeches.
Kim Jong Un took power after his father’s Dec. 17, 2011, death. Early in his first year, Pyongyang negotiated a deal with Washington for food aid in exchange for a nuclear freeze, but it collapsed after North Korea attempted to shoot a rocket into space in April. The rocket failed shortly after liftoff, but a successful second attempt on Dec. 12 helped Kim gain crucial political and popular support in his country.
North Korea hailed the launch as a big step in peaceful space exploration. Washington and others called the launch a banned test of ballistic missile technology and a step in Pyongyang’s pursuit of a nuclear tipped long-range missile.
Governments are also worried by recent analysis of North Korea’s main nuclear test site that indicates readiness for a possible third atomic explosion. North Korea has tested two atomic devices since 2006, both times weeks after U.N. condemnation of a long-range launch.
The annual New Year’s Day message lays out North Korea’s policy goals for the year. The need for a better economy and improvements in science and technology were major elements. North Korea has little arable land, is prone to natural disasters and struggles to grow enough food for its 24 million people.
Kim made no mention of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the issue that most worries Washington, but he did seek to glorify — and link to the economy — the successful rocket launch.
North Korea’s slogan for the year, Kim said, should be: “Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space!”
In Pyongyang, residents danced in the snow at midnight Monday to celebrate the end of a big year for North Korea, including the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung and the first year of Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Fireworks lit up the cold night sky, and people stood in fur-lined parkas, taking photos and laughing and dancing with each other in plazas.
Kim Jong Un tried in his speech to tap into North Koreans’ fond memories of Kim Il Sung, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in South Korea.
The rocket launch boosted morale, Koh said. “Now people are expecting him to improve the economy and help them live better economically,” Koh said. “Kim Jong Un knows that and feels the pressure of meeting that demand.”
Kim’s speech avoided harsh criticism of the United States, its wartime enemy. North Korea has used past New Year’s editorials to accuse the U.S. of plotting war.
But Kim underlined the need for military strength and modern weapons. “Only when it builds up its military might in every way can it develop into a thriving country and defend the security and happiness of its people,” Kim said.
Kim Jong Un has made several high profile changes in his military and government, and in his speech he called on officials to “make a fundamental turnabout in their ideological viewpoint, work style and attitude.”
The powerful military chief Ri Yong Ho was dismissed last year, and some officials viewed as more moderate, including Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, were elevated.
Kim Jong Un should “now work with those moderates he recently appointed to insure that North Korea immediately returns to negotiations and unilaterally announces a moratorium on all missile launches and nuclear tests,” Joseph DeTrani, a former North Korea specialist for the U.S. government, wrote recently.
South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye has said she will make efforts in her five-year term to boost aid and engage North Korea.
“If Kim Jong Un is going to engineer a shift from ‘military-first’ to ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ he is going to need Seoul’s encouragement, and he doesn’t have five years to wait,” John Delury, an analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University, wrote recently. He said it’s up to South Korea “to unclench its fist first, so that the leader of the weaker state can outstretch his hand.”
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