BEIJING // North Korea issued a New Year message that expressed its desire for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula as well as an end to its decades-long confrontation with the United States, and improved ties with rival South Korea.
Some analysts said the message was nothing more than a propaganda ploy by North Korea to whitewash its nuclear ambitions, while others saw the move as genuine and a response to the increasing sting of its moribund economy. In an editorial on Friday, jointly issued by leader Kim Jong-Il's Workers' Party and the army, and carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, the North said it "remains consistent in its efforts to establish a lasting peace system on the Korean Peninsula and make it nuclear-free through dialogue and negotiations."
The editorial, seen by North Korea observors as a blueprint for the state's policy goals in the new year, also said: "The fundamental task for ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the rest of Asia is to put an end to the hostile relationship between North Korea and the US." Departing from state-run media's usual hostile rhetoric, the editorial did not include any denunciation of the governments of the US and South Korea and allotted more words to building North Korea's economy than any other topic. Its usual emphasis on the military was almost absent.
The emphasis on the economy is generally understood as being in conjunction with the country's goal of building a "strong and powerful country" by the year 2012 - the 100th birthday celebration of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the nation, who died in 1994. "But then, oddly, there is no mention of the term '2012' or the goal of 'building a strong and powerful country' in the editorial," observed Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korea studies at Seoul's Dongguk University. "In a sense, the omission can be interpreted as a self-admission that it's difficult to realise the goal."
Zhang Liangui, a Chinese expert on North Korea at the Central Party School, a top institute in Beijing for the Communist Party cadre, said: "It's already 2010 now. North Korea has only two years to achieve such a goal. That's a mission impossible." Mr Koh sees the North's reconciliation gestures in the editorial as reflecting the economic hardship the country is undergoing. "The editorial heavily focuses on improving people's livelihood amid widespread dissatisfaction by people for lack of food. To alleviate poverty, North Korea needs to improve relations with other countries, including the US, to secure food assistance," he said.
Dong Yong-seung, chief analyst on North Korea's economic security at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul, is less convinced about the sincerity of the North's intentions. "It's hard to see it as a 'drastic' change. I don't see it as forthcoming enough. Putting more emphasis on economic affairs this time is only a matter of degree, not a fundamental change of its principle," he said. Mr Zhang in Beijing said North Korea's ultimate goal behind the entire charm offensive was to be recognised as a nuclear state.
"In 2010, North Korea will try to improve relations with the US, extend its olive branch to its rival South Korea, reach out to Japan by showing its willingness to resolve the issue of Japanese nationals who were abducted by North Korean agents in the 1980s, and also strengthen its ties with China and Russia. "The whole goal is to be recognised as a nuclear state," he said. "North Korea will launch a very vigorous reach-out campaign with the international community ? But eventually, the big goal North Korea pursues is to earn a tacit recognition as a nuclear state, similar to India and Pakistan," Mr Zhang said.
But Stephen Bosworth, the Barack Obama administration's point man on North Korea, said last month that the United States would not recognise North Korea as a nuclear state. North Korea's call for a thaw in relations comes as it is engaged in direct bilateral negotiation with the US. The two reportedly made progress during a meeting in Pyongyang in December. Because of that, some view the year 2010 as an important year for the North to make a major decision on nuclear disarmament.
"A big deal in which North Korea gives up its nukes in exchange for the settlement of peace treaty may be possible," Mr Koh said. Mr Dong, however, is sceptical. "For North Koreans, giving up nuclear weapons is a big deal because they are going to lose their biggest leverage by doing so. For the US, on the other hand, signing a peace treaty and handing out some economic aid to North Korea is not a big deal. Would North Korea opt for such a bold decision? I am not sure."