SEOUL–North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un called Tuesday for a “radical turnabout” in the impoverished country’s economy in a rare New Year’s address that also appeared to offer an olive branch to South Korea.
Kim’s speech, broadcast on state television, was the first of its kind for 19 years, since the death of his grandfather and the North’s founding president Kim Il-Sung.
Kim’s father and the country’s previous ruler, Kim Jong-Il, never made a major address to his people.
The year 2013 will be one of “great creations and changes in which a radical turnabout will be effected”, Kim said, adding that “the building of an economic giant is the most important task” facing the country.
Praising the success of the country’s space scientists in launching a long-range rocket last month, Kim said a similar national effort was now needed on the economic front.
“The entire party, the whole country and all the people should wage an all-out struggle this year to effect a turnaround in building an economic giant and improving the people’s standard of living,” he said.
But he offered no specifics for how this might be achieved by the isolated state, which is already under multiple sanctions and relies on its sole major ally China for 70 percent of its foreign trade.
When Kim Jong-Il died in December 2011 he left a country in dire economic straits — the result of a “military first” policy that fed an ambitious missile and nuclear program at the expense of a malnourished population.
Despite a rise in staple food output, daily life for millions is an ongoing struggle with under-nutrition, according to a recent World Food Programme report.
The address will be closely scrutinized in South Korea, which has just elected its first woman president, the conservative Park Geun-Hye, who has signaled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang.
Kim’s tone was conciliatory as he urged a scaling down of tensions between the two Koreas who remain technically at war.
“An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontation between the North and the South,” Kim said.
“The past records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war,” he added.
The South’s president-elect Park has distanced herself from outgoing President Lee Myung-Bak’s hardline policy towards Pyongyang.
But in her first policy statement following her election victory last month, Park made it clear she still saw Pyongyang as a serious threat and would put national security before any trust-building program.
Yu Woo-Ik, the South’s unification minister, said the North should not test the patience of the international community with missile and nuclear program.
In his address Kim made it clear that building the economy did not mean a complete shift away from his father’s “military first” policy.
“The military might of a country represents its national strength. Only when it builds up its military might in every way can it develop into a thriving country,” he said.
The UN Security Council is still considering whether to punish Pyongyang for its rocket launch, which most of the world saw as a disguised ballistic missile test.
The speech lauded the launch as a historic national achievement and stressed the need to develop more “sophisticated military hardware”.
But Kim made no mention of the North’s nuclear weapons program, despite growing speculation that Pyongyang is preparing to conduct a nuclear test following the rocket success.
Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said the general tone of Kim’s speech was positive.
“It might signal limited economic reforms this year and also sends a message to South Korea’s incoming president about a desire for improved cross-border relations,” Yang said.