North Korean leader Kim Jong-un boasted yesterday that North Korea enters the new year on a surge of strength because of the elimination of “factionalist filth” — a reference to the young leader’s once powerful uncle, Jang Song-thaek, whose execution last month raised questions about Kim’s grip on power.
Kim’s comments in an annual New Year’s Day message, which included a call for improved ties with Seoul, but also a warning of a possible “nuclear catastrophe,” will be scrutinized by outside analysts and governments for clues about the opaque country’s intentions and policy goals.
Already widespread worry about the country has deepened since Kim publicly humiliated and then executed his uncle and mentor, one of the biggest political developments in Pyongyang in years, and certainly since Kim took power two years ago after the death of his father, former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
North Korea’s “resolute” action to “eliminate factionalist filth” within the ruling Workers’ Party has bolstered the country’s unity “by 100 times,” Kim said in a speech broadcast by state TV.
However, Kim included rhetoric that some analysts saw as a first step to renewing dialogue with rival Seoul.
Kim called for an improvement in strained ties with South Korea, saying it is time for each side to stop slandering the other and urging Seoul to listen to voices calling for Korean unification.
That language, which is similar to that of past New Year’s Day messages, is an obvious improvement on last year’s threats of nuclear war, though there is still skepticism in Washington and Seoul about Pyongyang’s intentions.
The public announcement of Jang’s fall opened up a rare and unfavorable window on the country’s inner workings, showing an alleged power struggle between Kim and his uncle after the 2011 death of Kim Jong-il.
Seoul worries that instability could lead to provocations meant to help consolidate internal unity.
Recent indications that North Korea is restarting a mothballed reactor that can produce plutonium for bombs has left Washington and Seoul skeptical about Pyongyang’s recent calls for a resumption of long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks.