(6th LD) N. Korea extends olive branch to S. Korea
By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, Jan. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called Wednesday for improved ties with South Korea as he hailed the recent purge and execution of his once-powerful uncle that has apparently strengthened his grip on power.
In an annual New Year's message delivered live on the North's television and radio, the 30-something leader also pledged to rebuild the North's moribund economy in 2014 with emphasis on food production.
"We will make aggressive efforts to improve relations between the North and the South," Kim said in the speech which lasted 25 minutes. "The South side should also come forward to improve relations between the North and the South."
Kim's comment came amid concerns that the North may stage military provocations against South Korea as part of its strategy to forge internal unity following the execution of his once-powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, on charges of treason.
The high-profile purge of Jang, who had long been considered the North's No. 2 man and Kim's regent, sparked concerns over potential instability in the isolated country armed with nuclear weapons.
Kim made no direct mention of Jang's purge in the speech, saying only that "the purge of anti-party and counterrevolutionary factionalists has strengthened the party." Without naming Jang, the leader called him a "factional filth."
The mood in North Korea is apparently somber following Jang's purge, but the country marked the New Year's Day with elaborate fireworks that its media said lit up the skies of Pyongyang, the capital.
Mindful of possible political unrest in North Korea following Jang's purge, South Korea put its military on higher alert. North Korea has a track record of carrying out provocations at a time of its internal instability to divert people's attention and forge unity.
South Korea is cautious on the North's rare conciliatory gesture.
"It remains to be seen whether the North will change its attitude in the future as it continues to criticize" South Korea, the Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, said in a news release.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, a private security think tank near Seoul, said North Korea is likely to propose dialogue with South Korea in the coming months as part of its peace offensive.
In December, North Korea warned of military strikes against South Korea in anger over a Seoul rally, in which conservative protesters burned effigies of Kim and his father and grandfather, the North's two late leaders, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung.
The South Korean capital city of Seoul, with more than 10 million people, is within the range of North Korea's conventional artillery positioned along their heavily fortified border.
Seoul has repeatedly vowed to retaliate against any provocations to avenge the deaths of 50 South Koreans, mostly soldiers, who were killed in North Korea's two separate attacks in 2010.
On Wednesday, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin issued a fresh warning to the North.
"The enemy would be bringing destruction on itself if it attempts to test our capabilities and readiness," Kim said in a letter to military commanders, ordering them to strike back mercilessly without hesitation in case of enemy provocations.
Kim said the situation on the Korean Peninsula has become very uncertain in the wake of the execution of the North Korean leader's uncle, and the communist nation is highly likely to launch provocations against the South in the new year.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye took office in February last year with a pledge to improve ties with North Korea but Seoul-Pyongyang relations have been in limbo largely because of the North's hostile policy.
North Korea, Kim said, will continue to build up its military.
"We should continue to channel great efforts into building up the country's defense capabilities," Kim said. "Strengthening defense capabilities is the most important of all state affairs, and the country's dignity, people's happiness and peace rest on powerful arms."
Kim's New Year message, widely seen as the North's equivalent of the U.S. State of Union address, is scrutinized by South Korea and other regional powers as it offers clues to the North's policy goals in the New Year. Kim rarely speaks in public.
During most of its broadcast of Kim's speech, the North's state television showed a snow-covered building, and it was unclear whether the leader actually made the speech in front of any audience. His speech was frequently punctuated by monotonous and ritualistic hand-clappings.
It marked the second time that Kim has delivered a verbal New Year message since he inherited power from his late father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.
Kim Jong-un's father, late leader Kim Jong-il, never issued a verbal New Year's message. Instead, the North had released New Year's messages in the form of a joint editorial by the North's leading newspapers of the party, military and youth militia.
Kim in the speech also lambasted frequent joint military exercises by South Korea and the U.S., calling them a rehearsal for a nuclear war against the North.
He warned that any accidental military skirmish on the Korean Peninsula could lead to "a deadly nuclear catastrophe" and that "the United States will never be safe."
The United States, which fought against North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War, still keeps about 28,500 troops in South Korea.
Kim also called for efforts to boost agricultural output.
North Korea's food production is estimated to have been at about 5.03 million metric tons in 2013, up 5 percent from the previous year, the U.N. World Food Program said in a report posted on its Website.
Still, the food security situation is still serious, with 84 percent of all households having borderline or poor food consumption, the report said.
Also Wednesday, Kim, along with his wife Ri Sol-ju and top officials, visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang to pay his respects to the two late leaders, the Korean Central News Agency reported.
North Korean leaders mark key anniversaries by visiting the mausoleum, where the embalmed bodies of the country's two late leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, lie in state.