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2009/01/08 10:43 KST
NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 36 (January 8, 2008)

   *** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

N. Korea's New Year Editorial Emphasizes Economy, Denuclearization

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea greeted the New Year with its main policy objectives centered on rebuilding its ailing economy and denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

   In a commentary printed by the nation's major newspapers, Pyongyang also signaled a major foreign policy shift towards the United States and acknowledged a need to raise living standards for its 23 million people.

   The editorial, titled "Glorify this year as a year of a new revolutionary upsurge sounding the general advance," was issued jointly by the North's government, ruling party and military on Jan. 1. Widely seen as an official guideline on the North's political, economic and foreign affairs, the annual editorial addresses all aspects of North Korean society.

   While hostile language aimed at Washington was notably absent, the commentary harshly criticized Seoul's Lee Myung-bak administration, indicating a rough road ahead for already tense inter-Korean relations.

   Pyongyang's official foreign policy is "to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and defend the peace and security of Northeast Asia and the rest of the world," according to the article.

   The three participating newspapers were the Rodong Sinmun of the North's Workers' Party, the Joson Inmingun of the Korean People's Army and the Chongnyon Jonwi, the organ of the Kimilsung Socialist Youth League.

   The editorial called for all-out efforts "to solve food problems by our own efforts" and modernize its steel industry, the backbone of its industrial sector.

   The role of the North's ruling Workers' Party and the country's military-first policy, or "songun" in Korean, were also emphasized as key to the nation's success.

   "The glorious tradition of engraving an immortal heroic epic by dint of a harmonious whole in which the leader believes in the people and the people trust in and follow their leader absolutely should be inherited firmly," the editorial said.

Commitment to Denuclearization, Conciliatory Gesture toward U.S.

Experts say that while much of the message was focused on economic policy, it also seemed aimed at putting to rest rumors of leader Kim Jong-il's ailing health. They also note that in order to achieve its stated goal of becoming a "great, prosperous and powerful nation" by the year 2012, Pyongyang will likely boost its social control efforts.

   Pyongyang's reiteration of its commitment to "denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and defend the peace and security of Northeast Asia and the rest of the world" has led analysts here to believe the North is attempting to make a conciliatory gesture to the incoming U.S. administration under Barack Obama.

   The commentary firmly stated its position towards Seoul and again demanded the implementation of the 2000 ad 2007 summit accords.

   "We will not accept any attempt to derail the historic joint declaration of the two Koreas," the editorial read. Those accords - signed between North Korea's Kim and Seoul's earlier liberal administrations -- promised wide-ranging economic cooperation between the two nations.

   North Korea accused Seoul of being "steeped in pro-U.S. sycophancy and hostility towards fellow countrymen." Going further, the editorial called on South Koreans to "fuel the fire in their fight against the conservative authority's fascist rule and to remove the danger of war." The authors warned that the North would "never tolerate any act of provocation by the enemy, but would punish it mercilessly."

   Inter-Korean relations rapidly deteriorated during Lee Myung-bak's first 10 months in office, with Pyongyang suspending dialogue and Seoul canceling shipments of humanitarian aid. "Amid hostility and escalated military tensions, we cannot expect the improvement of inter-Korean relations and reunification," the editorial said.

   Experts argue that Pyongyang sees the inauguration of incoming U.S. President Obama on Jan. 20 as an opportunity to start fresh in its relations with Washington after eight years of deteriorating ties with the Bush White House.

   Pyongyang has yet to make any critical remarks of Obama or his appointees, who are set to take office later this month. Obama has expressed his willingness to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. In what appeared to be an olive branch, the editorial said North Korea "will develop relations with the countries friendly towards us."

   The North's professed commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula marks a turnaround from its 2006 editorial, which sought to justify its nuclear weapons drive as a deterrent against U.S. aggression. North Korea's nuclear program is estimated to have produced enough plutonium for several atomic bombs.

   Seoul's Unification Ministry said in response to the editorial that it was rare for the North not to make any criticism of the United States.

   The six-party talks aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons program are essentially on hold until Obama takes office. The latest round, held in Beijing in December, ended without progress due to differences over verifying North Korea's nuclear declaration.

   Last year's joint editorial made no mention of the nuclear issue, though the North's 2007 editorial claimed the country had attained "nuclear deterrent power" after conducting its first nuclear test in 2006.

   Experts also note that amid uncertainty about the future of the regime following a prolonged absence by its leader, Pyongyang is bolstering its social control measures.

   Kim remained out of the public eye for more than 50 days starting in late August 2008, missing a key anniversary celebration for the North's ruling Workers' Party in September. Seoul and Washington officials believe Kim suffered a stroke in August and is now recovering, though Pyongyang has vehemently denied such claims. Kim, who turns 67 in February, has not nominated a successor.

   In an apparent effort to put an end to notions that Kim's health may be failing, North Korea's state-run media stepped up their reporting of inspection tours by the reclusive leader in recent weeks.

Calls to Address Food Crises, Living Standards

The editorial also urged citizens to help end the chronic food shortages that have plagued the country for decades, emphasizing that a solution must come about through "our own" efforts to ensure the "independent survival of our unique method of revolution." They called for concentrated efforts in "hitting this year's target of grain production with an extraordinary determination to solve the food shortage."

   North Korea's annual harvest increased slightly in 2008, but the U.N. World Food Program says nearly a quarter of its population still needs outside food aid. North Korea, which suffered severe crop losses due to flooding in 2006 and 2007, had one of its best harvests in years last year, but still did not produce enough food to feed its people.

   The South, meanwhile, halted shipments of food and fertilizer aid to the North amid frozen inter-Korean ties. Once a steady donor of aid to the impoverished country, the South's suspension will likely continue in the New Year due to the damaged relations.

   South Korea's central bank said the North's ailing economy shrank 2.3 percent in 2007, following a 1.1 percent contraction a year earlier. An ongoing global economic downturn is expected to further drive down its export volume and outside aid.

   "A radical turn should be brought about in the efforts to improve the standard of people's living," the editorial continued, reviving a post-war reconstruction movement first launched in 1956 by state founder Kim Il-sung, father of Kim Jong-il, in the aftermath of the 1950-53 Korean War.

   The Chollima movement, modeled after a similar movement in China and named for a mythic winged horse in Korean legend, will draw on the efforts of the nation's 23 million people to help rebuild the North's frail infrastructure, including modernization of the steel industry, the backbone of North Korea's industrial development.

   Emphasizing the importance of these economic tasks, the editorial said the metal industry is the mainstay of "our independent socialist economy." It stressed the need for increased production of iron, as well as an increase in the supply of electricity, fuel and other raw materials to the metal works industry in order to maximize the nation's benefits from the core sector.

   The editorial also called for joint innovation in the fields of power and coal industries and rail transport to promote the development of the overall national economy. The mining and machine-building industries should boost production and accelerate modernization, it said. The chemical industry is also stressed, it said, as are housing and land development projects and the science and technology sectors.

   North Korea has issued an annual newspaper editorial on New Year's day since 1995. Widely seen as the regime's policy blueprint for the coming year, some analysts say this year's message displayed less authority than years prior. Until 1994, Kim Il-sung read the New Year's message aloud on television and radio.

   Last year, the North Korean government seized the nation's 60th founding anniversary as a milestone event from which the country would rein in a new era of development. In 2008, the joint editorial placed the economy at the top of North Korea's policy priorities, reiterating calls for Seoul to pursue inter-Korean economic cooperation in line with summit accords between North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and former South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.