It's a mark of the degree of desperation of those who want to believe, against all the evidence, that change in North Korea is just around the corner, that the New Year speech given by the Fat Controller is being greeted as a dramatic signal of impending reform. In the Times this morning Richard Lloyd Parry's prominent piece goes under the headline "Kim Opens Door to Reconciliation" - though the on-line version (£) amends that to "Kim Jong Un calls for North Korean economic turnaround":
North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, gave a rare televised speech yesterday in which he hinted at reforms to the country’s moribund economy and reconciliation with its deadly rival, South Korea.
It was the first time that a North Korean leader has delivered such a New Year message since 1994, and confirms the shift to a more direct and informal style that has characterised Mr Kim’s public appearances since he succeeded his late father, Kim Jong Il, just over a year ago.
But it also offered intriguing hints of what North Korea watchers have been looking for most avidly since the succession: a meaningful shift in policy in one of the world’s most isolated and repressive states.
“The new year 2013 is a year of great creations and changes in which a radical turnabout will be effected in the building of a thriving socialist country on the road of the onward march in the new century,” Mr Kim said in a speech broadcast on state television.
Referring to the successful launch last month of a rocket-borne satellite, he added: “‘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!’—this is the fighting slogan our Party and people should uphold this year.”
In the second half of last year there was widespread discussion among North Korean cadres of fundamental and politically risky changes to the country’s communist economic system. Farmers were preparing for a relaxation of rules that currently require them to hand over almost all the produce from collective farms to the state distribution system.
In the end, the reforms appear to have been restricted to a few experimental farms. But yesterday Mr Kim hinted that they might be given more general application in 2013.
He said: “We should hold fast to the socialist economic system of our own style, steadily improve and perfect the methods of economic management ... and generalise on an extensive scale the good experiences gained at several units.”
"We should hold fast to the socialist economic system of our own style" doesn't sound very much to me like an announcement of impending change, but there you go. If you're determined enough, you can read into it what you want to read into it. Which may be the point. And at least it makes a change from the poisonous rat-themed invective from last year, aimed at departing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
South Korea's Chosun Ilbo sees reason for cautious optimism:
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's New Year's address struck an unaccustomed friendly note....
Kim Jong-un's speech was by far the most conciliatory yet. The Korea Institute for National Unification said it brings hope of improved inter-Korean relations ahead of the launch of the Park Geun-hye administration. A close aide to Park said it was a "good sign," even though the North is probably just testing the new South Korean administration's appetite for dialogue. Still, the aide added, "I don't see any need to downplay its significance."
That comes about as near as we're going to get to a rationale: they're testing the new South Korean administration. If - when - they don't get exactly what they want, then it'll be back to the rat invective. And with a new female president the opportunity to spice up the insults with an extra dose of misogyny will probably prove irresistible. Give it a few months...
The Daily NK - who are, after all, probably in a better position that anyone to make a judgement - adopt a more critical and, I think, more realistic view:
Kim Jong Eun was quick to impress the outside world on New Year's Day, appearing on television to make the kind of New Year's TV and radio address that was last seen prior to the death of national founder Kim Il Sung in 1994. However, although optimistic analysis has followed in some quarters, the address appears to contain little more than empty words.