Rocket launch fears ease as North shifts its focus

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Rocket launch fears ease as North shifts its focus

North Korea’s leader has appeared to be exhibiting greater concern for improving public welfare, a sign that has raised expectations that he may opt against launching a long-range rocket to commemorate the ruling party’s upcoming anniversary.

Kim Jong-un’s latest calls to improve the Communist country’s desolate economy was featured Sunday in a report by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, which covered Kim’s attendance at the completion ceremony for the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station in Yanggang Province, which borders China.

The ceremony was held on Friday, the state mouthpiece said.

It was Kim’s third visit to the plant this year following one last month.

In April, he made his first appearance at the construction site to encourage workers there to finish the project, 13 years in the making, by the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party, which falls on Oct. 10 and is considered one of the country’s most important events.

In his speech at the ceremony, Kim praised the work done on the power plant, saying that the sense of solidarity demonstrated by the project’s completion was more significant than resolving electricity shortages in the area, the KCNA reported.

His participation in the ceremony is a continuation of recent moves to emphasize improving North Korea’s dire economy and the welfare of its people that have led to speculation that Kim may opt against launching of a long-range rocket or even conducting a fourth nuclear test for the anniversary.

Kim’s renewed focus on the economy was reflected in his public inspections last month. Of the seven inspections he made, six were related to public welfare. The one inspection, which was unrelated, was made at a munitions factory in Sinuiju.

In lieu of any military provocations, Pyongyang is expected to put on a large military parade this Saturday, during which new military weapons could be unveiled.

“While the North has proclaimed that it is within its sovereign rights to fire a long-range rocket, there have been no signs of launch preparations so far. Based on what we have seen until now, I suspect North Korea is not technically ready to fire a long-range rocket on the anniversary this year,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, a non-profit think tank specializing in national security and diplomatic affairs.

Others, however, are skeptical about interpreting Kim’s recent inspections as signs that he will not defy international warnings against a rocket launch.

“Kim’s recent inspections could be seen as his message to the public that he will keep his promise to raise the living standard for the North Korean people, as was stipulated in the North’s two-track strategic approach, in which it pursues both nuclear development and economic growth,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “North Korea may opt not to fire a long-range rocket on the anniversary. But it would be for other reasons, such as its lack of preparation or technical failure, than Kim’s recent inspections calling for an improvement in an economy.”

President Park Geun-hye, meanwhile, is set to attend a series of diplomatic events this month, all of which are expected to address North Korea.

On Oct. 16, Park will hold talks with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington. She will also attend a trilateral summit with her Chinese and Japanese counterparts at the end of the month.

Seoul’s stance against the North’s potential launch of a long-range rocket was evidenced last week by Oh Joon, South Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations, who said that the scope of existing UN sanctions on Pyongyang “could be expanded” should it opt for a provocation.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]

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