SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea ushered in 2009 with an appeal Thursday to unite around leader Kim Jong Il and bolster the country's military, while reaffirming its commitment to denuclearization and breaking with tradition by not criticizing the U.S.
North Korea traditionally marks New Year's Day with a joint editorial by the country's three major state-run newspapers representing its communist party, military and youth militia force. Outside observers pore over the statement for insight on the reclusive country's policy direction.
This year's message accused South Korea of an "anachronistic confrontation policy" and stressed the need to strengthen the country's 1.2 million-member military — the backbone of Kim's totalitarian rule.
However, it lacked the country's usual criticisms of the United States, an indication the country may hope to build up ties with the incoming government of President-elect Barack Obama.
"North Korea didn't issue insults for the U.S. in this year's editorial. That showed North Korea's expectation for the Obama government," said Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the security think tank Sejong Institute in South Korea.
Obama has sought to emphasize his willingness to hold direct talks with the North — including possibly meeting with leader Kim.
Kim Ho-nyeon, a spokesman at the South Korean Unification Ministry, noted later Thursday that New Year's messages in 1993 and 2001 also didn't criticize the U.S., shortly before former President Bill Clinton and current President George W. Bush were inaugurated.
In other New Year's messages, the North has accused the U.S. of plotting a war against it and demanded that Washington withdraw its 28,000 troops from South Korea.
Tension on the Korean peninsula has run high since South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, a pro-U.S. conservative, took office in February with a pledge to take a tough line on the North. Ties worsened last month as North Korea restricted traffic at the border, expelled some South Koreans from a joint industrial zone and suspended a tour program to an ancient North Korean city.
Lee has questioned key reconciliation accords his liberal predecessors signed with the North and recently sponsored a U.N. resolution denouncing North Korea's human rights record. The North has also bristled at Seoul's failure to stop activists from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border.
On Thursday, a group of South Korean activists flew balloons carrying about 3,000 leaflets to the North from Imjingak, a South Korean border town. The leaflets criticized Kim Jong Il's dictatorship and policies that have put the country's 23 million people on the brink of starvation.
The New Year message, carried by the country's official Korean Central News Agency and broadcast by state television, said the North's military should strengthen its discipline by upholding "the idea, intention, order and instruction of the Supreme Commander."
The title refers to Kim, who has initiated a "military-first policy" making the country's top priority the strengthening of its armed forces.
"We should continue to put utmost efforts to building up the country's military strength in line with the requirements of the prevailing situation," it said.
Kim has been the focus of intense speculation since he reportedly suffered a stroke and underwent brain surgery in August. The North has denied its 66-year-old was ever ill, churning out a slew of reports and photos depicting him as healthy and active.
The statement also restated the country's commitment to a nuclear-free Korea.
"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," it said.
The editorial said the North plans to develop relations with "the countries friendly toward us."
Paik said the remarks show the North's willingness to "actively" cooperate in furthering disarmament talks if it has improved ties with the U.S. under Obama's new administration.
The North Korean nuclear talks ended in a stalemate last month over Pyongyang's refusal to put into writing commitments on inspecting its past nuclear activities, blocking progress on an aid-for-disarmament agreement reached last year.