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(New Year Special) N.K. to further extol its leader, engage in powerful provocations next year: experts

All Headlines 09:00 December 23, 2016

By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, Dec. 23 (Yonhap) -- North Korea will likely make 2017 the pinnacle of the personality cult for its leader Kim Jong-un while engaging in more powerful provocations around the time it celebrates key anniversaries, experts said Friday.

This year, the North's leader reaffirmed his iron-fisted rule by holding two key events which analyst say served as his coronation -- a rare congress by the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) in May and a parliamentary meeting in June.

He took office in late 2011 following the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il who had ruled the repressive state for nearly 20 years.

The North's current leader was elected chairman of the WPK at the party congress and also the chairman of newly-created apparatus State Affairs Commission at the meeting of the rubber-stamp parliament.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks to a rare party congress held by the ruling Workers' Party of Korea in this photo carried by the Korean Central News Agency on May 8, 2016. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

For North Korea, next year will be full of major anniversaries which will highlight the three generations of rule by the family dynasty that started with late founder Kim Il-sung.

"In 2017, North Korea will likely boost the personality cult of the current leader. There is a possibility that his portraits could be hung in public places," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute.

In October, North Korea's state media said that the country will kick off next year with the celebration of the incumbent leader's birthday in January, followed by the hosting of colorful political and cultural events throughout the year.

"North Korea's media mentioned his birthday for the first time. Pyongyang could designate his birthday, which falls on Jan. 8, as a national holiday as it did so for the birthdays of his father and grandfather," Cheong said.

Other key commemorative days include the 105th anniversary of the late founder's birthday, which falls on April 15, and Kim Jong-il's 75th birthday, which falls on Feb. 16.

North Korea also plans to hold international events in August next year to praise the accomplishments of the three Kims at Mount Baekdu, the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, and in the capital city.

Reflecting this, analysts said that North Korea is expected to conduct its sixth nuclear test or launch a long-range rocket in the first half of next year to show off its military prowess and boost internal solidarity.

A report by the local Asan Institute for Policy Studies said that the reclusive country could carry out a more powerful nuclear bomb test or show off a more advanced ballistic missile that would surpass all previous provocations in late December or early January.

The report cited the possibility of a high altitude nuclear detonation test or the launch of a ballistic missile that employs usable re-entry warhead technology.

"North Korea could make such provocations before U.S. President-elect Donald Trump takes office on Jan. 20," it said. "The North's possible move could highlight the failure of U.S. President Barack Obama's strategic patience policy while not irritating the incoming Trump administration."

Pyongyang conducted two nuclear tests this year alone following those in 2006, 2009 and 2013. It also fired off more than 20 ballistic missiles including Musudan intermediate-range and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

North Korea is seen as seeking to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can hit the U.S. mainland.

(New Year Special) N.K. to further extol its leader, engage in powerful provocations next year: experts - 2

"If North Korea makes provocative acts, the Trump administration will likely apply pressure on Pyongyang and employ coercive diplomacy including military options," the state-run Institute for National Security Strategy said in a report. "A tense standoff between Washington and Pyongyang may lead to another nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula."

Ken Gause, a senior analyst at the CNA Corp. in the U.S., said the North has a lot to lose if it pushes ahead with provocations in the lead up to Trump's inauguration.

"For that reason, North Korea may refrain from conducting provocations for the time being," he said. "But if Seoul and Washington make it clear that their policies will not change under new administrations, then Pyongyang's calculus would shift because it too has nothing to lose."

The outlook for inter-Korean relations has become murky as South Korea is engulfed in a political scandal involving President Park Geun-hye and her longtime confidante.

On Dec. 9, the country's parliament approved a motion to impeach Park over the scandal. If the Constitutional Court approves the impeachment, South Korea will hold a presidential election earlier than expected.

Park's five-year single term ends in February 2018 with the next presidential election originally slated for December 2017.

Under Park's conservative administration, inter-Korean ties have reached one of the lowest points due to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests. Seoul also shut down a joint industrial complex in February, ending the last remaining symbol of economic reconciliation.

Cheong at the Sejong Institute said that the North's leader could deliver a conciliatory message toward the South in his New Year's speech.

"North Korea may open the door for inter-Korean talks by taking into account South Korea's presidential race," he said. "In a New Year's message, Kim may express his openness to have talks with anyone who has an interest in improving inter-Korean relations."

(New Year Special) N.K. to further extol its leader, engage in powerful provocations next year: experts - 3

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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