S Korea brushes off North’s ‘bland’ New Year message

CAUTIOUS::An official in Seoul said that Kim Jong-un did not make any groundbreaking moves and past peace overtures have made little progress

AFP, SEOUL

Thu, Jan 03, 2013 - Page 6

South Korea yesterday dismissed a rare New Year’s message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “bland,” despite his apparent overture to Seoul about reducing tensions.

“The message was bland and there were no groundbreaking proposals,” South Korean Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik told reporters.

Kim’s speech on Tuesday was notable for being delivered in person, rather than through the state media as had been the tradition with his father and former leader Kim Jong-il who died in December 2011.

It was the first of its kind for 19 years, since the death of his grandfather and the North’s founding president Kim Il-sung.

In his address, Kim Jong-un stressed the need to build his impoverished nation’s economy and to ease tensions between the two Koreas.

“An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontation between the North and the South,” he said.

“The past records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war,” he added.

Yu said Kim Jong-un’s remarks may have been aimed at new or transitional leaderships in China, Japan and South Korea, but added that Seoul had good historical reasons for treating peace overtures warily.

Efforts to engage Pyongyang with “good intentions” in the past had made little progress, he said.

South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye, who will take office next month, has signaled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang.

In related news, officials in Seoul said that the number of North Korean refugees fleeing to the South fell sharply last year, with activists citing crackdowns and tighter border controls.

A total of 1,508 North Koreans arrived in the South last year — nearly all of them via China — down from 2,706 the previous year, the ministry said.

Activists said the North had cracked down on people trying to flee the country under new leader Kim Jong-un.

Searches for North Koreans living in hiding in China have also been intensified in cooperation with Chinese security authorities, they added.

“Border guards are under an order from Kim Jong-un to shoot to kill anyone who attempts to cross the [North Korea-China] border illegally,” said Pastor Kim Sung-eun of the Caleb Mission, one of several South Korean Christian evangelist groups that help North Koreans escape and resettle in the South.