In a televised New Year's address on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for better inter-Korean relations. "We will make aggressive efforts to improve relations between the North and the South," Kim said. "It is time to end abuse and slander that is only good for doing harm."
Regarding the purge of his uncle and former eminence grise Jang Song-taek, Kim said he took decisive steps to get rid of "factional filth."
In last year's New Year's address, Kim also offered to resolve cross-border tensions. In late 2012, the North had fired a long-range rocket and issued all kinds of threats against the South. The unexpected gesture was seen as an attempt to propose talks with President Park Geun-hye, who had just been inaugurated, but those hopes were dashed less than a month later when, despite warnings by the international community including its ally China, the North pushed ahead with its third nuclear test and spewed a raft of threats.
Late last year, Kim was still warning that war could break out "without any prior notice." So it is too early to take his latest peaceable message at face value. Indeed, it may be wiser to brace for more belligerent behavior.
North Korea finds itself more isolated than ever from the international community, both diplomatically and economically. There are some views that the North has severed its link with China with the execution of Jang, who was the chief conduit in relations with Beijing.
In the past, North Korea has usually resorted to provocations against South Korea when it finds itself under such pressure. But Pyongyang must realize that Seoul and Washington will strike back against any provocation, and Beijing is finding it increasingly difficult to stand by the North.
If North Korea is really interested in improving relations, it must prove it by stopping the relentless barrage of insults aimed at South Korea. South Korea's task is to help the North make the right choice but prepare for the worst.