SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un called on 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, Kim Jong-Il, almost never managed any direct verbal 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 North's space scientists in launching a long-range rocket last month, Kim said a similar national effort was now required 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 specific policy directives for how this might be achieved by the isolated state, which is already under multiple UN sanctions and relies on its sole major ally China for 70 per cent of its foreign trade.
When Kim Jong-Il died in Dec.2011 he left a country in dire economic straits — the result of a “military first” policy that fed an ambitious missile and nuclear programme at the expense of a malnourished population.
Despite a rise in staple food output, daily life for millions of Koreans is an ongoing struggle with under-nutrition, according to a recent World Food Programme report.
The address will be closely scrutinised in South Korea, which has just elected its first woman president, the conservative Park Geun-Hye, who has signalled 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 and has even held out the prospect of a summit with Kim in the future.
But in her first policy statement following her election victory last month, Park made it clear she still viewed Pyongyang as a serious threat and would put the South's national security before any trust-building programme.
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.
In his first year as leader, Kim focused on consolidating his power base with a series of high-profile personnel changes, notably within the military elite, while at the same time pursuing Kim Jong-Il's missile programme.
His New Year address came as the UN Security Council is still considering how to punish Pyongyang for its recent 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 he made no mention of the North's nuclear weapons programme, despite growing speculation that Pyongyang is preparing to conduct a nuclear test following the rocket success.
Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, 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.