Kim Jong-un has boasted that North Korea enters the new year on a surge of strength because of the elimination of “factionalist filth” – a reference to his once powerful uncle, whose execution last month raised questions about the young leader’s grip on power.
His comments in an annual New Year’s Day message – which included a call for improved ties with South Korea but also a warning of a possible “nuclear catastrophe” – will be scrutinised by analysts and governments for clues about the country’s intentions and policy goals.
Already widespread worry about the North has deepened since Mr Kim publicly humiliated and then executed his uncle and mentor, one of the biggest political developments in Pyongyang in years, and certainly since the leader 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”, Mr Kim said in a speech broadcast by state TV. He did not mention by name his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, long considered the country’s second most powerful man.
Mr Kim included rhetoric that some analysts saw as a first step to renewing dialogue with rival Seoul. He called for an improvement in strained ties with South Korea, saying it is time for each side to stop slandering the other and urging Seoul to listen to voices calling for Korean unification.
That language, which is similar to that of past new year messages, is an improvement on last year’s threats of nuclear war, though there is still scepticism in Washington and Seoul about Pyongyang’s intentions.
North Korea’s authoritarian, 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 unfavourable window on the country’s inner workings, showing an alleged power struggle between Mr Kim and his uncle after the 2011 death of Kim Jong-il.
Jang’s public downfall was seen as an acknowledgement 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 missiles.
Seoul is worried about instability. 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 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 left Washington and Seoul sceptical about Pyongyang’s recent calls for a resumption of long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks.
Lim Eul Chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kyungnam University, said there was a stronger push in this year’s message for improved ties with Seoul, but that does not mean North Korea will take any dramatic steps any time soon.
Observers say Kim’s vow to improve his people’s living standards could be linked to the comments on better inter-Korean ties, which are seen as necessary to winning badly needed investment and aid.
Robert Carlin, a North Korea expert and contributor to the 38 North website, said Mr Kim’s speech suggested more concrete North Korean proposals are coming.