North Korea ushers in 2010 with commitment to achieve nuclear-free Korean peninsula

By Kwang-tae Kim, AP
Thursday, December 31, 2009

NKorea vows to achieve nuclear-free Koreas

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea reaffirmed its commitment to a nuclear-free Korean peninsula in a New Year’s message Friday, brightening the prospect that Pyongyang may rejoin the stalled international talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons programs.

“It is the consistent stand of the DPRK to establish a lasting peace system on the Korean Peninsula and make it nuclear-free through dialogue and negotiations,” the message said, referring to the country by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Pyongyang’s Jan. 1 statement, examined annually for clues to the regime’s policies for the coming year, also said it will strive to develop good relations and friendship with other countries, while calling for an end to hostile relations with the United States.

The North has long called for Washington to end hostility toward the regime and said it developed nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack. Washington has repeatedly said it has no intention of invading the communist country.

North Korea traditionally marks New Year’s Day with a joint editorial by the country’s three major newspapers representing its communist party, military and youth militia force. The editorial was carried by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency.

The North’s latest commitment came as Washington is trying to coax Pyongyang to return to the international disarmament talks.

The two countries agreed on the need to resume the negotiations during a trip to Pyongyang by President Barack Obama’s special envoy in early December, but North Korea did not make a firm commitment on when it would rejoin the talks.

In 2007, North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for aid and other concessions from South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the U.S., but the process has stalled over how to verify its accounting of its past atomic activities.

North Korea quit the disarmament talks last year in anger over international criticism of a long-range rocket launch, which was denounced as a test of its missile technology. The regime then conducted a nuclear test and test-fired a series of ballistic missiles.

The editorial also appealed to North Korean soldiers to unite around leader Kim Jong Il and remain vigilant to thwart any surprise attacks by the enemy.

It urged the country’s 1.1 million-strong military, the backbone of Kim’s totalitarian rule, to “defend with our very lives the leadership of revolution headed” by Kim.

The lengthy message also said Pyongyang remains committed to improving its relations with South Korea, urging the South to refrain from taking actions that may aggravate the confrontation and tension.

“Unshakable is our stand that we will improve the north-south relations and open the way for national reunification, said the message.

The two Koreas are still technically at war because their 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. Their relations soured badly after conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak took office in early 2008 with a tough policy on the North, with their navies engaging in a brief but bloody skirmish in November.

The latest charm offensive came weeks after the North threatened South Korean ships with possible attack by designating a firing zone along their disputed sea border, where the deadly November clash erupted.

The western maritime boundary has long been considered a flash point between the two Koreas because the North does not recognize a line the United Nations unilaterally drew at the end of the Korean War. Pyongyang claims the actual border is further south.

The dispute led to deadly skirmishes in 1999, 2002 and on Nov. 10. In the latest clash, ships from the two sides exchanged fire in the disputed waters, leaving one North Korean sailor dead and three others wounded, according to the South.

The New Year’s message also stressed the need to improve the people’s standard of living by accelerating the development of light industry and agriculture while calling for efforts to gain access to more foreign markets, and undertake foreign trade.

“Light industry and agriculture are the major fronts in the efforts for improving the people’s standard of living,” the editorial said. “The agricultural sector should sharply increase the grain output.”

The impoverished country has relied on foreign aid to feed its 24 million population after natural disasters and mismanagement devastated its economy in the mid-1990s.

Pyongyang has set 2012 — the centenary of late North Korea founder Kim Il Sung’s birth — as a goal for building a “great, prosperous and powerful country.”

The regime introduced economic reforms in 2002, including street and farmers’ markets. But the government backtracked in 2006 after the reforms failed to revive the economy and resulted in an influx of foreign goods.

The North redenominated its currency, the won, as part of a far-reaching currency overhaul aimed at curbing runaway inflation and reasserting control over the economy.

South Korea voiced concerns that the currency revamp could trigger instability in North Korea that may pose a threat to the South.

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