Hoping for good news from Pyongyang

Fireworks over Pyongyang. Photo Korea Friendship Association

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address earlier this week drew international attention both because it was the first in nearly 20 years that any North Korean leader had delivered in person, and because of its conciliatory tone towards South Korea. Kim said it was time to ‘remove confrontation between the North and the South’.

The new tenor has to be welcomed, given the vile invective that North Korean state media have heaped upon Seoul, and particularly President Lee Myung-bak, during the past five years . Whether the kinder words represent any real chance, however, remains to be seen. Like the North Korean agricultural reforms reported last summer, one waits for meaningful implementation.

The wait may not be long. Just a day after Kim took the high road in his speech, North Korea’s highest organ, the National Defence Commission (NDC), reverted to form in a threatening statement that condemned the ‘Lee Myung-bak group of traitors’ and called the South Korean president a ‘rat and an idiot’.

In language clearly directed towards President-elect Park Geun-hye, who takes office on 25 February, the NDC statement said ‘inter-Korean relations now stand at a crossroads’, and that ‘south Korean authorities would be well advised to make a responsible choice’.

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