Kim Signals Warmer North Korea Ties With South

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un named improving the economy and better relations with South Korea as top policy goals for his second year as leader, signaling he may ease his country’s confrontational approach toward Seoul.

“The building of an economic giant is the most important task that comes to the fore in the present stage of building a thriving socialist country,” Kim said yesterday in a New Year address carried by the official Korean Central News Agency. “The reunification of the country is the greatest national task that brooks no further delay.”

Kim departed from the past year’s saber-rattling against South Korean President Lee Myung Bak as Lee’s successor Park Geun Hye prepares to take office Feb. 25. Park has repudiated Lee’s hard-line North Korea policy, expressing her willingness to talk to Kim and help the North join global organizations to thaw ties.

“Kim’s speech mentioned the importance of the economy at far greater frequency than the military,” Cheong Seong Chang, senior research fellow at the Seoul-based Sejong Institute, said in an e-mail yesterday. “The success of the Dec. 12 missile launch has given Kim enough confidence to not have to rely on his father’s military-first policy to garner support.

‘‘The urgency of economic issues also compounds to the North’s need to better ties with South Korea, which makes it likely that Pyongyang will aggressively engage in efforts to resume dialogue,” Cheong said.

Better Lives

Kim delivered the 4,112-word address, his sixth public speech since taking power, for about 25 minutes on state television and radio, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said yesterday on its website. It was the first New Year speech by a North Korean leader since that delivered by state founder Kim Il Sung in 1994, the ministry said.

“Kim Jong Un is trying to imitate Kim Il Sung and promote a similar image,” said the ministry, which also noted Kim’s emphasis on the need to increase coal and metal production over last year’s call to boost electricity supply.

“We should develop coal-mining, electric power and metallurgical industries and rail transport on a preferential basis and provide a firm springboard for the building of an economic giant,” Kim said yesterday. The success of economic construction will be gauged by betterment of people’s living standards, which also requires an increase in agricultural and consumer goods output, he added.

China Reliant

North Korea’s economy is about one-fortieth the size of that of its southern neighbor. Chronic food insecurity and malnutrition affects about two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people, Jerome Sauvage, then-UN resident coordinator in the North Korea capital of Pyongyang, said in June. Heavy rains and floods in July compounded food shortages, leaving almost 600 people dead or missing and 212,000 homeless, KCNA said in August.

The North is reliant on its neighbor China for diplomatic and economic support, with bilateral trade amounting to $5.63 billion in 2011, 70.1 percent of the North’s total commerce that year, according to an annual report by South Korea’s national statistics office, Statistics Korea. North Korea does not release its economic data.

The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea has more than halved since Kim Jong Un became leader, according to the Unification Ministry. As of October 2012, a total of 1,203 defectors had entered the South while 2,706 arrived in 2011, data on the ministry’s website showed. A total of 24,308 defectors now reside in South Korea, the ministry said.

Diplomatic Shield

China serves as North Korea’s diplomatic shield at the United Nations Security Council because it sees potential in North Korea’s cheap labor and its rich mineral reserves. As a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, China has resisted efforts to impose fresh sanctions against the North over its missile launch last month that demonstrated a heightened ballistic capability.

South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin and Unification Minister Yu Woo Ik have warned against the North possibly conducting a third nuclear weapons test in follow up to the December launch.

North Korea has more than 250 long-range artillery installations along the world’s most fortified border. South and North Korea technically remain at war after their 1950-1953 conflict ended without a peace treaty.

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