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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 88 (January 7, 2010)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK

N. Korea Emphasizes Economy, Calls for Better Ties with U.S., S. Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In its New Year message, North Korea expressed hope for an end to hostile relations with the United States and reaffirmed its commitment to freeing the Korean Peninsula of nuclear arms through dialogue and negotiations. It also expressed its intent to work toward better ties with South Korea, but placed most emphasis on rebuilding its frail economy and improving the people's standard of living.

   The joint editorial, released by the country's state media on Jan. 1, stressed the need to develop light industry and agriculture as the "major fronts in efforts to improve the people's standard of living." The editorial, jointly issued by the North's ruling party, army and youth militia, is considered a blueprint for the socialist state's policy goals for the coming year.

   Pyongyang's New Year message was devoted largely to assurances of advancement with regard to the goal of achieving a powerful, prosperous state by 2012, but supplemented this with several paragraphs on external affairs. The mentioning of relations with the U.S. and South Korea was made in surprisingly moderate language devoid of the usual propaganda harangues.

   Pyongyang's latest message showed that the socialist state is prepared to cooperate on restarting the stalled multilateral talks aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons programs. Toward Seoul, the North directly called on the need to "open the path for improving relations between the two Koreas." "Unshakable is our stand that we will improve north-south relations and open the way for national reunification," the editorial said, adding the North remains committed to improving inter-Korean ties according to the joint declarations signed on June 15, 2000 and Oct. 4, 2007, after their summit meetings.

   Without repeating its old habit of denouncing the Seoul government, the joint editorial stressed that this year will mark the 10th anniversary of the historic inter-Korean summit held on June 15, 2000. Just a year ago, the message of the three official dailies had described Seoul's conservative Lee Myung-bak administration as a "group of lunatics" bent on confrontation with the North.

   In the editorial carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, North Korea said it remains consistent in its efforts "to establish a lasting peace system on the Korean Peninsula and make it nuclear-free through dialogue and negotiations." This could be seen as the North's intention of normalizing ties with the U.S. But the communist state is apparently putting a peace mechanism before its denuclearization.

   Pyongyang is seeking to sign a peace treaty with the U.S. to replace the armistice that halted the 1950-53 Korean War. But the U.S. and South Korea are firm in their position that the North's complete denuclearization should come first before signing such a treaty.

   In this sense, the North Korean message manifested its dual pursuit for a stable peace regime and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue and negotiation. Pyongyang's policy keynote unequivocally stated its intent to deal with the two issues in a package through the just-started dialogue with the U.S. and the six-party talks.

   The editorial, with titled "Bring about a radical turn in the people's standard of living by accelerating the development of light industry and agriculture once again this year that marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Workers' Party of (North) Korea" was jointly issued by the party's Rodong Sinmun, army's Josoninmingun and youth militia's Chongnyonjonwi.

   Conspicuous by its absence for the second straight year was the North's demand for the withdrawal of the U.S. forces in South Korea and for the termination of the U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises. In fact, military-related issues took a backseat to the economy this year. In the past two years, the North's political ideology and national defense overshadowed the economy.

   The North, which conducted its second atomic test in May last year, justifies its pursuit of nuclear arms by claiming the U.S. has yet to abandon its intention to invade the communist country. The enmity traces back to the truce that halted the Korean War, which technically continues, leaving China and North Korea in a state of conflict with the U.S. and South Korea.

   Pyongyang stressed that this year marks the 10th anniversary of the June 15 agreement reached between the two Koreas under former President Kim Dae-jung. There has been speculation since last year that the two Koreas may be heading toward a summit as the mood of reconciliation deepened following a rare visit by Washington's special envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang in early December.

   During the first bilateral meeting between the North and the U.S. since the installation of the Barack Obama administration, the two sides reached a common understanding on the need for and the role of the six-party talks and the importance of the 2005 joint statement on Pyongyang's commitment to denuclearization.

   The time for the next round of six-nation talks has yet to be set despite Bosworth's visit, but officials and analysts have said February would be the best time for the discussions to pick up. The six-party round table may spawn four-way talks on replacing the current armistice with a permanent peace treaty, experts said.

   An official at the South's Ministry of Unification described the editorial as a positive sign, hoping that the two sides can mend ties and move toward peace, reconciliation and co-prosperity.

   "The editorial tells us the North will likely push for a forum grouping the four countries to produce a tangible declaration of some sort to terminate the truce" and forge a peace treaty, said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

   But most noticeable points of the message were Pyongyang's emphasis on the economy. Faced with an economic plight that has left many of its 24 million people impoverished, North Korea declared it will focus on raising its standard of living by revamping its light and agricultural industries.

   North Korea appears to be under the influence of an ongoing global financial crisis. Conditions are expected to have worsened in the wake of stringent sanctions laid down by the U.N. after the North conducted its second nuclear test in May last year. The unfavorable economic climate is part of the reason Pyongyang is so eager to mend fences with Seoul, experts said, as inter-Korean projects have served the North well financially.

   Underlining the significance of the New Year, the editorial said that all-Party and nationwide efforts should be concentrated on improving the people's standard of living. "This year marks the 65th anniversary of the founding of the glorious Workers' Party of Korea and the country's liberation," it said.

   As the slogan of the editorial indicated, light industry and agriculture are the major fronts in the efforts for improving the people's standard of living. "An all-Party, nationwide effort should be directed to mass-producing consumer goods. The light-industry sector should carry forward the upgrading of its factories and enterprises on a high level, and strive to improve the quality of consumer goods."

   The editorial also touched on the country's trade, saying, "We should gain access to more foreign markets, and undertake foreign trade in a brisk way to contribute to economic construction and the improvement of the people's standard of living."

   In the editorial, the North disclosed "four vanguard sectors" which are the engine of the national economy and a key to solving the problem of the people's living. "The vanguard sectors, with a firm view that the development of light industry and agriculture depends on that of heavy industry, should push ahead with today's general offensive for improving the people's standard of living by means of increased production."

   The four vanguard sectors refer to steel and metal industry; electric power and coal industry; rail transport; machine-building industry. The North said steel production leads to the production of grain and machinery. The sector of metal industry should increase the capacity of iron production.

   The sector of electric power industry should channel efforts to run thermal power stations at full capacity and push ahead with the construction of large-scale hydroelectric power stations. The coal industry sector should produce coal without condition for the thermal power stations, chemical factories and other important units.

   It said the rail transport sector should set an order and discipline as strict as in the army, produce new-type locomotives and freight cars in a larger number and modernize railway services.

   The machine-building industry should extend the introduction of CNC (Computer Numerical Controlled) technology to the high standard required by the IT age and effect a revolution in the production of tools, so as to produce high-performance, state-of-the-art machinery in a larger number, it said.

   In other tasks for the year, the North also asked to implement the people-oriented policies of the Party and the state to enable all the people to substantially enjoy the benefits of socialism. The true nature of our socialism lies in putting the people's well-being above anything else and providing them with all the benefits, it claimed, adding that the fundamental secret of making a "new leap" in this year's general offensive lies in launching a campaign to push back the frontiers of science and technology in all sectors.

   Emphasizing the role of the military, the editorial also stressed the North's 1.2-million-strong army should hold "aloft the slogan 'Let us defend with our very lives the leadership of revolution headed by the great Comrade Kim Jong-il.'"

   North Korea has set out to become a prosperous economy by the year 2012, and this year will be a crucial one for Pyongyang to establish a foundation for economic growth. It carried out its first currency redenomination in 17 years in November to control inflation and to reassert the state's stranglehold on the economy.

   Analyzing the joint editorial, a newspaper published in Japan said the North's decision to improve inter-Korean ties was "clear and immovable." Choson Sinbo, a pro-Pyongyang daily for the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, noted this signaled a "dramatic change" in inter-Korea relations this year.

   "The comment about North-South relations in this year's editorial is different from those of previous years, and it not only mentioned the issue in detail but also provided specific directions (for inter-Korean ties)," the newspaper said.

   Responding to the North's editorial, the U.S. State Department expressed hope that North Korea will return to the six-party talks. "We hope that North Korea will agree to resuming the six-party talks," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Jan. 4. "We are hopeful that we'll get some actions toward that end and not just words.

   Kelly was repeating the U.S. government's position that it is ready to have another high-level, face-to-face meeting with the North to pave the way for reopening the multilateral nuclear talks also involving South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

  (END)