North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he is hoping to dramatically improve his country’s standing with the world as the Hermit Kingdom enters 2021 with an economy fractured by sanctions, natural disasters and coronavirus-related border closings.
The dictator made the plea this week while addressing the first congress of the ruling Workers’ Party in five years. Observers, the Associated Press reported, had expected Kim to use the event to send conciliatory gestures toward South Korea and the United States as he faces deepening economic troubles at home.
Kim “declared the general orientation and the policy stand of our party for comprehensively expanding and developing the external relations,” the Korean Central News Agency said Friday in a report about his speech.
Kim also examined relations with South Korea “as required by the prevailing situation and the changed times,” KCNA added.
The congress is the party’s top decision-making body — it reviews past projects, lays out new priorities and reshuffles top officials. It was convened as Kim struggles to overcome what he called “multiple crises.”
In his opening-day speech, Kim admitted his previous economic plans had failed and vowed to adopt a new five-year development plan. On the second day of the meeting, he said he would bolster his country’s military capability.
Kim, who inherited power upon his father Kim Jong Il’s death in late 2011, turned 37 on Friday. His birthday hasn’t yet been designated a national holiday like his father’s and grandfather’s. KCNA said the congress would continue, suggesting it was having a fourth-day session on Kim’s birthday.
After a provocative run of weapons tests in 2016-17, Kim abruptly launched high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with President Trump. He also met Chinese, Russian, South Korean and other world leaders. But as his diplomacy with Trump stalled and the coronavirus forced him to close his country’s borders, Kim has been focusing domestically to mitigate the economic shocks from the pandemic.
During Thursday’s session, Kim also called for “thoroughly eliminating non-socialist elements” in North Korean society and proposed ways to promote the “might of the social system of our state,” KCNA said.
Analysts say North Korea is guarding against a possible spread of capitalism and looser internal unity amid the economic difficulties.
South Korea’s spy agency said Kim is worrying about U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, who is to take office on Jan. 20. Biden has called Kim a “thug” and is unlikely to hold any direct meetings with him unless North Korea takes serious steps toward denuclearization. The Kim-Trump diplomacy broke down during a summit in Vietnam in early 2019 after Trump rejected Kim’s offer to dismantle his main nuclear complex, a limited disarmament step, in return for broad sanctions relief.
Ties between the Koreas flourished briefly after Kim entered talks with Trump. But North Korea has halted exchanges with the South and resumed harsh rhetoric against it since the breakdown of the Kim-Trump summit in Vietnam.
Some observers say North Korea is frustrated because the South has failed to break away from Washington and revive stalled joint economic projects held back by the U.S.-led sanctions. They also speculate that North Korea initially thought South Korea would help it win sanctions relief but got upset after Kim returned home empty-handed from the 2019 summit with Trump.
The observers say North Korea may reach out to South Korea first to promote a mood of reconciliation before pushing for talks with the Biden administration. The nuclear diplomacy between Kim and Trump began after South Korean officials met Kim in early 2018 and conveyed to Washington his reported willingness to deal away his nuclear program in exchange for economic and political benefits.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.