North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivered a New Year’s message and it was televised on Jan. 1 — in stark contrast with his father Kim Jong Il, who rarely spoke in public. The points of his 24-minute message, which was also issued as a joint editorial by North Korea’s three main newspapers, were economic reconstruction of his country and improvement of the relations between Pyongyang and Seoul.
But he also made it clear that building military might remained a national priority. As long as Pyongyang sticks to its “military first” policy, it will be difficult to raise the living standards of the North Korean people and improve relations with South Korea.
Mr. Kim apparently took a cue from the 1993 New Year’s message delivered by Kim Il Sung, his grandfather and the founder of North Korea. Kim Il Sung noted that realizing the people’s wish to eat white rice and meat soup, wear silk clothes and live under pantiled roofs is an important goal of socialism.
In his message, Mr. Kim Jong Un said that North Korea’s launch in December of a long-range rocket that put what the country calls a satellite in orbit demonstrated not only the fruit of his country’s space technology but also his country’s total strength and called for “bringing about a radical turnabout in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space.”
He said that agriculture and light industry are strategic sectors and that the people’s diet must be improved through promotion of the dairy industry and fisheries. He also called for improvement in economic management. But he failed to provide specific policy measures to reconstruct the country’s economy.
North Korea once had a stronger economy than South Korea. But in 2011, North Korea’s per capita gross national income was only 1.33 million won (about ¥110,000), about 5.3 percent of South Korea’s 24.92 million won, according to South Korean statistics. Mr. Kim can blame his country’s military-first policy for this.
Turning to Pyongyang’s relations with Seoul, he said that removing “confrontation” between the two sides would be important in bringing about the reunification of the two Koreas and stressed the importance of taking a new turn this year in efforts for the reunification. Apparently Mr. Kim has in mind South Korea’s next president, Ms. Park Geun Hye, who is positive about engaging in dialogue with North Korea.
But if he wants to rebuild North Korea’s crippled economy and have his country accepted as a trusted member of the international community, Mr. Kim must rethink his government’s policy of placing priority on the development of nuclear weapons and missiles. Unless it abandons this policy, North Korea will continue to suffer from the economic impact of international sanctions. Mr. Kim should realize that the lifting of sanctions is the first step toward North Korea’s economic reconstruction.
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