Kim Jong-un calls for an end to decades of conflict with South Korea

North Korean leader makes rare New Year speech that hints at a less hardline stance

Beijing

North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, called today for "radical" economic renewal and an end to conflict with the South in the first New Year speech from Pyongyang's insular leadership in nearly two decades.

"Let us bring about a radical turn in the building of an economic giant with the same spirit and mettle as were displayed in conquering space," he said.

Normally, any New Year's messages from the government are issued in an editorial in the three main state newspapers. Mr Kim's address was the first such speech his since his late grandfather – North's founding president Kim Il-sung – addressed the nation on New Year's Day nearly 20 years ago.

It underlined how Mr Kim has set himself apart from the style of his late father, Kim Jong-il, since his succession in December 2011.

His standing has also been given a boost by the successful launch of a long-range rocket last month. While Pyongyang claims the launch was a satellite mission, Western analysts say it was part of its plan to develop missile technology capable of reaching US soil. Mr Kim said the launch was a major boost for "national self-esteem".

At the same time, North Korea remains desperately poor. Its agriculture is backward, its industry outdated, natural disasters such as flooding have wrought havoc in the past few years and it often fails to feed its 24 million people.

Mr Kim's message, broadcast on state TV, did not give any specifics on how he planned to boost the moribund economy, but he did make a link between scientific advance and economic reform.

"The industrial revolution in the new century is, in essence, a scientific and technological revolution, and breaking through the cutting edge is a shortcut to the building of an economic giant," he said, in a speech delivered from behind a massive podium emblazoned with the Korean Workers' Party motif of a hammer and sickle with a brush in the middle.

He mostly read – unsmiling – from notes, although it was relatively animated for a North Korean leader, his fringe flopping over his forehead as he got stuck in.

While there was some substance to his speech, it was peppered with all the usual "high praises of the undying feats" of Mr Kim's father and grandfather and an "ardent reverence for Kim Jong-un who is ushering in the era of great prosperity".

Mr Kim kicked off the New Year with a performance by the country's Moranbong Band in Pyongyang at midnight, together with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, who is rumoured to be pregnant. They were joined at a major banquet by military officers and diplomats, as well as scientists and other workers who contributed to the long-range rocket launch.

The United Nations Security Council is currently examining ways of punishing North Korea for violating its resolutions, which forbid any ballistic missile-related technology, but China is reportedly resisting any tougher sanctions against Pyongyang.

The speech also appeared to reach out to South Korea, which has just elected its first woman President, the conservative Park Geun-Hye.

Pyongyang loathed her predecessor, the outgoing President Lee Myung-Bak, who had a hardline policy towards the North, but President-elect Park has signalled a desire for greater engagement with Pyongyang.

"Confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war," said Mr Kim. However, it would be wrong to see his speech as signalling a major departure from the norms of power that have brought him to where he is today, especially in the way he underlined the importance of military muscle.

"The military might of a country represents its national strength. Only when it builds up its military might in every way can it develop into a thriving country," he said, calling for the development of "more sophisticated hardware."

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