Kim Jong-un burnished his credentials as the North’s “supreme commander” with a successful rocket launch in December last year and a nuclear test early last month, but he is still building his reputation at home.
The North Korean economy is in ruins after years of international sanctions, and the state can no longer provide for its people, 24 million of whom face regular food shortages, according to the UN.
The North’s statement on Sunday said its nuclear program would be accompanied by economic development through more foreign trade and investment, and a focus on agriculture, light industry and a “self-reliant nuclear power industry.”
“Even dictatorships respond to public opinion and public pressure,” said John Delury, a North Korea analyst at Yonsei University in Seoul. “He’s expected to pay attention to and make improvements in the common people’s standard of living. They’ve put that promise out in their domestic propaganda.”
While threats of a nuclear strike or other major attacks are being dismissed as bluster, the possibility of a more localised conflict is a growing concern.
In November 2010, the North shelled Yeonpyeong, a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed Yellow Sea border, killing two civilians and two soldiers. Earlier the same year a torpedo attack blamed on the North sank a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors.
Seoul did not take action, but promised fierce retaliation if attacked again, raising fears that a naval clash or isolated shelling in the coming days or weeks could quickly spiral out of control.
Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies with the Council on Foreign Relations in the US, said the US should now help Kim Jong-un find a way to lower the diplomatic temperature.
“There is a need for the United States and South Korea to offer some clear diplomatic gestures of reassurance toward the North that can help the North Koreans climb down, calm down and change course,” Snyder said.
For now, cool heads prevail in Seoul’s presidential Blue House. Park, a conservative who took office less than two months ago, has spoken of engagement with the North — a departure form the hardline stance of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who cut free-flowing aid and took inter-Korean relations to their lowest point in years.
Park reportedly wants to begin the process by offering humanitarian aid, followed by huge investment in North Korea’s social and economic infrastructure, but only if Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons program in return.