SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong Un boasted Wednesday that North Korea enters the new year on a surge of strength because of the elimination of “factionalist filth” — a reference to the young leader’s once powerful uncle, whose execution last month has raised questions about Kim’s grip on power.
Kim’s comments in an annual New Year’s Day message, which included a call for improved ties with Seoul, will be scrutinized by outside analysts and governments for clues about the opaque country’s intentions and policy goals.
There’s widespread worry about the country’s future since Kim publicly humiliated and then executed his uncle and mentor, one of the biggest political developments in Pyongyang in years, and certainly since Kim took power two years ago after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il.
North Korea’s “resolute” action to “eliminate factionalist filth” within the ruling Workers’ Party has bolstered the country’s unity “by 100 times,” Kim said in a speech broadcast by state TV. He didn’t mention by name his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, long considered the country’s No. 2 power.
Kim called for an improvement in strained ties with South Korea, saying it’s time for each side to stop slandering the other. He urged Seoul to listen to voices calling for unification between the countries.
The language on unification, which is similar to that of past New Year’s messages, is an obvious improvement on last year’s threats of nuclear war, though there is still deep skepticism in Washington and Seoul about Pyongyang’s intentions.
North Korea’s authoritarian and secretive government is extremely difficult for outsiders to interpret, and analysts are divided about the meaning of Jang’s execution on treason charges.
Many, however, believe that the purge shows Kim Jong Un struggling to establish the same absolute power that his father and grandfather enjoyed. The public announcement of Jang’s fall opened up a rare and unfavorable window on the country’s inner workings, showing an alleged power struggle between Kim and his uncle after the 2011 death of Kim Jong Il.
Jang’s public downfall was seen as an acknowledgment of dissension and loss of control by the ruling Kim dynasty. That has caused outside alarm as Kim Jong Un simultaneously tries to revive a moribund economy and pushes development of nuclear-armed missiles.
Seoul worries that instability caused by Jang’s execution could lead to Pyongyang launching provocations to help consolidate internal unity. Attacks blamed on North Korea killed 50 South Koreans in 2010, and tension on the Korean Peninsula still lingers, although Pyongyang has backed away from war rhetoric from early last year that included threats of nuclear attacks against Washington and Seoul.
Recent indications that North Korea is restarting a mothballed reactor that can produce plutonium for bombs has caused deep skepticism in Washington and Seoul about Pyongyang’s recent calls for a resumption of long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks.
The country conducted its third nuclear test in February. It’s estimated to have a handful of crude nuclear devices and to be working toward building a warhead small enough to mount on a long-range missile, although most experts say that goal may take years to achieve.
In comments that mirror past North Korean propaganda, Kim also said South Korean and U.S. “war mongers” were working “frantically” to bring nuclear attack devices to the peninsula and surrounding areas, part of training for northward nuclear attacks. An accidental conflict, he said, could trigger “an enormous nuclear catastrophe,” which would threaten U.S. safety.
North Korea was shaken by nuclear-capable U.S. bombers that flew over the peninsula last year after Pyongyang made war threats. Pyongyang’s state-controlled media regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of plotting to attack the North and overthrow its government, something the allies deny.
The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula technically in a state of war. About 28,500 American troops are deployed in South Korea to help deter North Korean aggression.
There had been some early hope in Washington that Pyongyang could see change under Kim Jong Un’s rule. Kim’s government reached an agreement in early 2012 with Washington for a nuclear freeze in exchange for U.S. food aid.
It was meant to pave the way for full-fledged negotiations on the North’s nuclear program, but the North wrecked the deal within weeks when it launched a rocket in defiance of a U.N. ban.
Kim has since overseen a nuclear and missile test, other high-profile purges and a barrage of threats. Kim Jong Il took a much more low-profile approach when he rose to power after the 1994 death of his father, the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
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