North Korea ushered in the new year with an appeal yesterday to unite around leader Kim Jong-il and bolster the country's military, while reaffirming its commitment to denuclearization and breaking with tradition by not criticizing the US.
North Korea traditionally marks New Year's Day with a joint editorial by the nation's three major state-run newspapers representing its communist party, military and youth militia force.
Outside observers pore over the statement for insight on the reclusive country's policy direction.
This year's message accused South Korea of an “anachronistic confrontation policy” and stressed the need to strengthen the country's 1.2 million-member military — the backbone of Kim's totalitarian rule.
However, it lacked the country's usual criticisms of the US, an indication the country may hope to build up ties with the incoming government of US president-elect Barack Obama.
“North Korea didn't issue insults for the US in this year's editorial. That showed North Korea's expectation for the Obama government,” said Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the security think tank Sejong Institute in South Korea.
Obama has sought to emphasize his willingness to hold direct talks with the North — including possibly meeting with Kim.
Kim Ho-nyeon, a spokesman at the South Korean Unification Ministry, said later yesterday that New Year's messages in 1993 and 2001 also didn't criticize the US, shortly before former president Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush were inaugurated.
In other New Year's messages, the North has accused the US of plotting a war against it and demanded that Washington withdraw its 28,000 troops from South Korea.
Tension on the Korean peninsula has run high since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a pro-US conservative, took office in February with a pledge to take a tough line on the North.
Yesterday, a group of South Korean activists flew balloons carrying about 3,000 leaflets to the North from Imjingak, a South Korean border town. The leaflets criticized Kim's dictatorship and policies that have put the country's 23 million people on the brink of starvation.