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(4th LD) N.K. leader vows to improve ties with S. Korea

2016/01/01 17:16

(ATTN: ADDS S. Korea's response in last para)

SEOUL, Jan. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un vowed efforts Friday to improve ties with South Korea, saying that he is open to talks with Seoul in an open-minded manner for unification.

In his New Year's message delivered live on the North's television, Kim said North Korea is open to having candid dialogue with the South. He did not mention the North's nuclear weapons program.

"We will make aggressive efforts to hold talks and improve relations with South Korea," Kim said in the speech, which lasted about 30 minutes. "We are willing to have talks in an open-minded manner with anyone who wants peace and unification."

   He called on Seoul to honor an inter-Korean deal reached in August to defuse military tension, urging it to refrain from doing acts that hurt what it called a conciliatory mood."

   The two Koreas reached a rare deal in August to ease military tension following a land mine blast near the inter-Korean border blamed on North Korea.

As part of such a deal, the two sides held high-level talks over how to mend ties last month, but they ended the meeting without any agreement, dimming the outlook for their ties.

His speech came days after Kim Yang-gon, the leader's key aide, who handled inter-Korean affairs, died in a car accident Tuesday, which analysts said could cast a cloud over Seoul-Pyongyang ties.

In the address, Kim expressed his willingness to improve ties with Seoul but fell short of commenting on a possible inter-Korean summit. The North's leader also rebuked Seoul for the South's unification policy, which Pyongyang has called Seoul's attempt to absorb the North.

Last year, Kim called for a "big shift" in inter-Korean relations in his New Year's message, saying that he is willing to hold summit talks with President Park Geun-hye if conditions are met.

"At a time when inter-Korean relations remain deadlocked, North Korea passed the responsibility for the strained ties to the South," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "It may hint at the North waiting for Seoul to make the first move."

   North Korean leader's New Year's message is closely monitored by South Korea and others as it offers clues to the annual policy goals by the secretive communist state.

For the fourth straight year, Kim Jong-un delivered a verbal message on the first day of the new year.

Kim did not mention North Korea's nuclear weapons program in what may be a gesture not to irritate China ahead of the North's key party event in May.

Kim has been pursuing the development of a nuclear arsenal while boosting the country's fragile economy, commonly known as the "byeongjin" policy. Seoul and Washington have warned that the North's dual-track policy is a dead end.

Kim also stressed the need to rebuild its moribund economy without touching on the nuclear issue. But he also said that North Korea should continue to build up its military capability by producing various striking means.

"All efforts should be directed toward building an economic power and there should be a fresh turn in the development of the economy and the improvement of people's living standards," he said.

The North Korean leader stressed the importance of holding the upcoming congress by the Workers' Party of Korea, calling for thorough preparations for the event.

The North's ruling party plans to hold the first congress in more than three decades in May, when Kim may unveil new lines of policies and conduct a major reshuffle.

"This year is a significant year, which will greet the 7th Congress of the WPK," he said, calling for efforts to make the party event a "glorious" one.

Responding to the speech, the South Korean government said that it is open to dialogue between the two Koreas, adding it also hopes for a peaceful reunification.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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