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N. Korean New Year Message Stresses Economy, Vows Nuclear Arms Reduction

  • Kurt Achin

North Korea says it will focus its efforts in the new year on building its military and economy, and acknowledges it has food scarcity problems that need to be addressed. Pyongyang issued its customary annual New Year's editorials in official media, hinting it is willing to press forward in talks to get rid of its nuclear weapons.

North Korea experts here in South Korea see hints of a conciliatory approach in Pyongyang's annual New Year's editorials. The annual statements - published in the country's three main state-run newspapers - are widely seen as crucial public indicators of normally secretive North Korean intentions for the year ahead.

This year's editorials include standard North Korean rhetoric extolling North Korean leader Kim Jong Il - who one editorial said should be the focus of an "immortal heroic epic." The editorials also called for renewed dedication to building up the North Korean military.

However, the editorials also proclaimed the validity of what the North calls the "independent foreign policy of our republic to denuclearize the Korean peninsula."

Baek Seung-joo, an analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, views that and other parts of the editorials as significant.

He points out that North Korea emphasized a willingness to scale back nuclear weapons. In addition, Baek says the North Korean editorials refrain from criticizing the United States, or the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama.

Baek and other experts say North Korea may be signaling a willingness to make a fresh start in dealings with the new U.S. administration. Negotiations aimed at ending North Korea's nuclear weapons capabilities are entering a sixth year, and are presently snagged over a dispute involving verification and inspection of the North's nuclear facilities.

The North's editorials also use frank language about the need to improve living standards, and point out "relieving food scarcity is a pressing problem." North Korea experienced chronic food shortages due to natural disasters and economic mismanagement since the mid 1990s, and relies heavily on charitable food donations from the international community.

South Korean officials say the editorials are in line with their expectations, and point out Pyongyang struck a similar conciliatory tone in 1993 and 2001, when incoming U.S. Presidents Clinton and Bush were about to take office.

The South issued its own prognosis this week for North Korean policy in 2009. South Korean Unification Minister Kim Ha-Joong told reporters that resolving a current chill in North-South relations depends on Pyongyang's willingness to talk.

"Dialogue is crucial," says Kim. "Without it, none of the political, military, economic and current issues can be dealt with."

When he took office last January, South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak reshaped ten years of North Korea policy which had focused heavily on unconditional handouts to the North. Pyongyang frequently calls Mr. Lee a "traitor" who has turned his back on North-South reconciliation. It has refused South Korean dialogue offers, and has dramatically scaled back border access and other cooperative projects.

South Korean food and other aid to the North remains on hold, pending better progress on issues like the nuclear talks and the return of South Korean prisoners of war and abductees.

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