North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in an annual New Year's speech Friday that he was ready for war if provoked by "invasive" outsiders, but he stayed away from past threats involving the country's nuclear weapons and long-range missile ambitions.
His comments stuck to well-worn propaganda meant to lift his image for the elite residents of one of the world's poorest, most closed countries, and could be read as an attempt to keep ties with rivals Washington and Seoul from getting worse so he can try to turn around a miserable economy and further solidify his leadership.
"We will continue to work patiently to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula and regional stability. But if invasive outsiders and provocateurs touch us even slightly, we will not be forgiving in the least and sternly answer with a merciless, holy war of justice," said Kim, who wore thick black-rimmed glasses that continued his efforts to mimic the style favored by his late grandfather, beloved national founder Kim Il Sung.
While largely repeating the daily propaganda in state-controlled media, Kim's words will be pored over by analysts for hints about the country's intentions for the coming year. There is little public information about the inner workings and policy goals of North Korea's government, which considers democratic South Korea and its ally the United States its enemies and is pursuing a long-range missile that could carry a nuclear warhead to America's mainland.
Some observers had predicted that Kim would avoid overly provocative statements because the county wants to improve relations with South Korea and also China, its most important economic and strategic ally. Ties between North Korea and China have been cool since Kim took power in 2011, but seemed to improve when a senior Chinese official attended a high-profile military parade in Pyongyang in October.
Kim said he was open to talks with anyone truly interested in "reconciliation and peace" on the Korean Peninsula, and ready to "aggressively" work to improve ties with the South. But a far larger part of his speech on North Korea's state TV was devoted to criticism of Seoul's approach to inter-Korean talks and its alliance with Washington.
He vowed to improve North Korea's struggling economy and living standards, and also called for the military to advance its technologies to develop more "diversified attack means."
Analysts say Kim likely wants a push for tangible diplomatic and economic achievements before a convention of the ruling Workers' Party in May, the party's first since 1980, when he is widely expected to announce major state policies and shake up the country's political elite to strengthen his position.
The rival Koreas have shown mixed progress in reconciliation efforts since stepping away from a military standoff in August, which started when land mine explosions that Seoul blamed on Pyongyang maimed two South Korean soldiers. The countries ended rare high-level talks last month with no breakthroughs.