SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday called for improving the economy and living standards of his impoverished nation with the same urgency that scientists showed in successfully testing a long-range rocket recently.
Kim’s first New Year’s speech, delivered on state TV, was peppered with rhetoric, with calls for boosting the military’s capabilities and making the science and technology sector world class. But other passages in the speech were also an acknowledgement of the poor state of the country’s economy that has long lagged behind the rest of the region.
North Korea has little arable land, is prone to natural disasters and struggles to grow enough food for its 24 million people.
The annual New Year’s Day message lays out North Korea’s policy goals for the year. But Kim gave no indication whether he plans to introduce economic reforms or allow free enterprise, except to say the economy should be underpinned by science and technology.
“The industrial revolution in the new century is, in essence, a scientific and technological revolution, and breaking through the cutting edge is a shortcut to the building of an economic giant,” he said.
He then pointed at the success of a long-range rocket that North Korea fired on Dec. 12, ostensibly carrying a satellite into space.
“Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space,” he said.
North Korea has hailed the rocket as a big step in peaceful space exploration. Washington and others called the launch a banned test of ballistic missile technology and a step in Pyongyang’s pursuit of a nuclear tipped long-range missile.
North Korea has tested two atomic devices since 2006, both times weeks after U.N. condemnation of a long-range launch. A recent analysis of North Korea’s main nuclear test site indicates readiness for a possible third atomic explosion.
Kim made no mention of nuclear weapons, but indicated that military will continue to be boosted.
“The sector of defense industry should develop in larger numbers sophisticated military hardware of our own style that can contribute to implementing the Party’s military strategy,” he said.
“Only when it builds up its military might in every way can it develop into a thriving country and defend the security and happiness of its people,” Kim said.
The speech itself was a signal that Kim will continue with a leadership style more in line with his gregarious grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung who routinely addressed his people on New Year’s Day, than with his father, Kim Jong Il, who avoided making public speeches. He never gave a TV address during his 17-year-rule, and his New Year’s messages were published as joint editorials in the nation’s three major newspapers.
With the speech – the first televised New Year’s Day message by a North Korean leader in 19 years – Kim Jong Un has tried to tap into North Koreans’ fond memories of his grandfather, said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in South Korea.
The rocket launch boosted public morale, Koh said. “Now people are expecting him to improve the economy and help them live better economically,” Koh said. “Kim Jong Un knows that and feels the pressure of meeting that demand.”
Kim, who took power after his father’s death on Dec. 17, 2011, has asserted control over the government and the military by dismissing its powerful chief Ri Yong Ho. Some other officials who were viewed as more moderate, including Kim’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, were elevated.
South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye has said she will make efforts in her five-year term to boost aid and engage North Korea.
“If Kim Jong Un is going to engineer a shift from `military-first’ to `It’s the economy, stupid,’ he is going to need Seoul’s encouragement, and he doesn’t have five years to wait,” John Delury, an analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University, wrote recently.
He said it’s up to South Korea “to unclench its fist first, so that the leader of the weaker state can outstretch his hand.”
Kim’s speech avoided harsh criticism of the United States, its wartime enemy. North Korea has used past New Year’s editorials to accuse the U.S. of plotting war.
In other signs of changes in the country – at least at a superficial level – North Korea also had its first grand New Year’s Eve celebration, with residents of the capital treated to the boom of cannons and fireworks at midnight.
In Pyongyang, residents danced in the snow at midnight Monday to celebrate the end of a big year for North Korea, including the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung and the first year of Kim Jong Un’s leadership. Fireworks lit up the cold night sky, and people stood in fur-lined parkas, taking photos and laughing and dancing with each other in plazas.
Associated Press writer Kim Kwang Hyon contributed to this story from Pyongyang, North Korea.