North Korea warned the world not to expect change from the regime under new leader Kim Jong Un and threatened a “roar of revenge” against South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, ahead of New Year messages by both sides that analysts say will focus on inter-Korean relations.
Lee had provoked North Korea by raising security alerts and declining to send an official mission to pay condolences after the Dec. 17 death of Kim Jong Il, the National Defense Commission said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency yesterday. The release came a day after the North ended a mourning period for Kim’s death.
“The veritable sea of tears shed by the army and people of the DPRK will turn into that of retaliatory fire to burn all the group of traitors to the last one,” the statement said, echoing rhetoric during Kim Jong Il’s rule. “The DPRK will have no dealings with the Lee Myung Bak group of traitors forever.”
Both Kim Jong Un and Lee face leadership tests that could shape their attitude toward engagement. Kim Jong Un needs to cement his grip on power in a country where the United Nations says one-third of the children are physically stunted from a lack of nutrition. Lee and his ruling party, which rolled back the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the nuclear-armed North, have dropped in opinion polls ahead of elections next year.
The statement from the National Defense Commission, which Kim Jong Il led, may be more evidence that Kim Jong Un has solidified his control over the regime, said Cheong Seong, a senior fellow at Seoul’s Sejong Institute, a research group that focuses in Korean relations. North Korea will achieve victory “closely rallied behind the dear respected Kim Jong Un,” the last sentence of the statement says.
“The new regime is trying to say that Kim Jong Un even has control over what was his father’s main state organ,” Cheong said in a telephone interview.
North Korea will release its New Year statement tomorrow in the form of an editorial carried by local newspapers and the state-run Korean Central News Agency. In his annual address on Jan. 2, Lee will focus on inter-Korean relations, inflation and unemployment, according to a spokesman at Lee’s office who declined to be named, citing government policy.
As part of the effort to bolster the image of the new leader, the North’s New Year message will include measures the regime will take to fulfill Kim Jong Il’s promise of creating a “strong and prosperous nation,” said Yang Moo Jin, a professor of North Korean politics at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“Kim Jong Un is de facto leader, but he still needs to prove himself in launching his new regime — and an economic measure would be the most efficient way of doing that,” Yang said. “What’s more hard-hitting for North Koreans than policies that affect how they’ll be able to put food on the table?”
North Korea’s 2010 gross domestic product was 30 trillion won ($26.5 billion), one-40th the size of South Korea’s, according to estimates by the South’s central bank. The North’s economy probably shrank in four of the past five years, the Bank of Korea says. Pyongyang doesn’t release GDP data.
South Korea’s gross domestic product nearly doubled to 1,173 trillion won ($1 trillion) from 2001 to 2010. The Bank of Korea forecasts that the country’s economic growth will slow to 3.7 percent next year from 3.8 percent this year.
Lee will take advantage of the transition in the North and announce a more conciliatory stance, said Kim Young Yoon of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for National Reunification. The opposition has blamed Lee for escalating tensions, saying his tough stance provoked hostilities that killed 50 South Koreans in 2010.
Lee scaled back the Sunshine Policy implemented by his predecessor, Kim Dae Jung, when he entered office in 2008, saying that Kim Jong Il’s provocative policies should not be rewarded.
Lee’s approval rating is at 26.9 percent, according to a poll of 3,750 South Koreans conducted Dec. 19-23 by Seoul-based Real Meter. The margin of error was plus or minus 1.6 percentage points.
“The current mood in South Korea is to take advantage of the North’s regime change and improve inter-Korean relations,” Kim said. “The easiest way to do that would be to call for high-level meetings to make way for resumed six-party talks,” he said, referring to a dialogue that is aimed at persuading the North to relinquish its nuclear-weapons program and includes the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.
South Korea announced a “low-level” alert after Kim Jong Il’s death was announced and expressed “sympathy” with the North Korean people, while limiting the number of its citizens who could travel to Pyongyang on condolence visits. Lee said the measures were meant to signal that his country wasn’t hostile toward the North, while Pyongyang issued threats of “unpredictable catastrophic consequences” over the South’s restrictions on visits.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula erupted into open conflict in March 2010, when 46 South Korean sailors were killed in the sinking of the Cheonan warship. An international panel blamed the attack on the North, which has denied the allegations. Eight months later, the North shelled an island in the Yellow Sea, killing four South Koreans.
North Korea, which has twice detonated a nuclear device, has more than 250 long-range artillery installations along the world’s most fortified border in reach of the Seoul area and its 23 million citizens. North and South Korea remain technically at war after their 1950-1953 conflict ended in a cease-fire.
South Korea plans to set up a fund to raise as much as 55 trillion won to pay for the costs of eventual reunification with the North, South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo Ik said in an October interview. Yu said the cost may be as high as 269 trillion won, or almost a quarter of South Korea’s 2010 gross domestic product.
While the North’s statement yesterday was its most belligerent since Kim Jong Il’s death, an attack is unlikely and it is focused mainly on food aid, said Kim Yong Hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“They want resumption of six-party talks more than anything because that’s the only way to get aid that is so crucial,” he said.
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