January 1, 2009 / 2:18 AM / 10 years ago

North Korea issues New Year denuclearization pledge

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea greeted the New Year by repeating its pledge to rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons and hinting it could work with Barack Obama when he becomes the U.S. president, editorials said on Thursday.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (L) looks at a book as he visits the 323 military unit at an undisclosed place in North Korea, in this undated picture released by North Korea's official news agency KCNA December 28, 2008. KCNA did not state expressly the date when the picture was taken. REUTERS/KCNA

The communist North, which uses joint editorials in its state newspapers on New Year’s Day to lay out its policy priorities for the year, also pledged to rebuild its faltering economy and improve the quality of life for its 23 million people.

“The independent foreign policy of our republic to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and defend peace and security of Northeast Asia and the rest of the world is demonstrating its validity more fully as the days go by,” a joint editorial said.

North Korea has often pledged to get rid of its nuclear program, estimated to have produced enough plutonium for about eight bombs, but has dragged its heals in disarmament talks for about 15 years despite being offered sweeteners to lift its economy out of desperate poverty.

The United States last month called for a halt in heavy fuel oil aid to punish the North for failing to agree at international disarmament talks to a system to verify the claims it made about its nuclear arms program, considered one of the greatest security threats in Asia.

Analysts said the energy-starved state, whose economy is smaller now than it was 20 years ago, could see a downward slide in production if it lost out on the fuel aid promised to it as a part of the nuclear deal it reached with five regional powers.

“The Workers’ Party of Korea and the government ... will develop relations with the countries friendly toward us,” it said in an editorial in what could be a hint that it is willing to work with Obama.

North Korea has had a running war of words with the Bush administration, calling its members “political pygmies” and “gangster-like philistines” but has refrained from making any critical comments of Obama, who takes office later this month.

The North also warned: “Our arms would never tolerate any act of provocation of the enemy but punish it mercilessly.”

SINGLE-MINDED UNITY

North Korea threatened to reduce its rich South Korean neighbor to ashes last year after political wrangling led Seoul to suspend aid handouts that were roughly equal to about five percent of the North’s estimated $20 billion a year economy.

“A radical turn should be brought about in the efforts to improve the standard of people’s living,” one editorial said without directly mentioning, as had been done in previous years, problems caused by chronic food shortages.

North Korea, which suffered severe crop losses due to flooding in 2006 and 2007, had one of its best harvests in years in 2008 but still did not produce enough food to feed its people, according to a report last month by an agency in the South.

North Korea relies on food handouts from international aid agencies such as the U.N. World Food Program, while the United States in 2008 pledged to provide major food aid.

The North said it wanted to boost numerous sectors such as mining, steel, chemical and agriculture.

The editorials offered their typical glowing praise of leader Kim Jong-il and his “songun” policy of putting the military first. There was no comment on Kim’s suspected stroke in August or a hint of a succession plan in Asia’s only communist dynasty.

“The army and people of the DPRK (North Korea) will surely build a great, prosperous and powerful nation in this land with the might of single-minded unity, upholding the songun revolutionary leadership of Kim Jong-il,” an editorial said.

Editing by Dean Yates

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