North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to strengthen his nuclear-armed nation’s military capabilities at a key ruling party meeting, state media reported Thursday, just weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president.
In his work report to the Workers’ Party congress, Kim pledged to place “the state defence capabilities on a much higher level, and put forth goals for realising it”, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
After an initial war of words and mutual threats, outgoing US President Donald Trump had an extraordinary diplomatic bromance with Kim, featuring headline-grabbing meetings and declarations of love by Trump.
But talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been stalled since the two men’s second summit in Hanoi broke down in February 2019 over sanctions relief and what Pyongyang would be willing to give up in return.
Analysts say the North is using the five-yearly congress to send the incoming administration a message, but is treading carefully – Biden characterised Kim as a “thug” during the presidential debates, while Pyongyang has previously called him a “rabid dog”.
KCNA did not refer to nuclear weapons in its report or give specific details of Kim’s goals.
But defector-turned-researcher Ahn Chan-il of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul told AFP: “It basically means the North will strengthen its nuclear capabilities.
“Kim does not want to say the word ‘nuclear’ as Biden takes office later this month, and he knows the incoming president’s stance on Pyongyang is uncompromising compared to his predecessor,” he added.
“Kim probably does not want to provoke him at this stage. But the North would never give up its nuclear weapons, that’s very clear.”
The US is expected to return to more orthodox diplomatic approaches under Biden, such as insisting on extensive progress at working-level talks before any leaders’ summit can be considered.
‘Mistakes we have made’
North Korea says it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself against a possible US invasion, and for decades has poured vast amounts of resources into developing them, at the cost of diplomatic isolation and multiple international sanctions.
Its progress accelerated rapidly under Kim, including by far its most powerful nuclear test and missiles capable of reaching the whole of the US.
At a military parade in October it showed off a huge new missile that analysts concurred was the largest road-mobile, liquid-fuelled missile anywhere in the world, and was highly likely to be designed to carry multiple warheads in independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs).
Analysts said it was proof that the North had continued to develop its arsenal throughout the diplomatic process, and gave Pyongyang greater heft to demand a return to the negotiating table.
The five-yearly congress is the top meeting of the North’s ruling party, a grand political set-piece that reinforces the regime’s authority and is closely followed by analysts for signs of policy shifts.
Reports citing satellite imagery say there are indications Pyongyang is planning a parade “with military elements” to mark the gathering.
On its first day, Kim admitted that “almost all sectors” had fallen short of their economic targets and said the congress would comprehensively analyse “the experiences, lessons and mistakes we have made during the period under review”.
The coronavirus pandemic has added to the pressures on the North, which closed its borders last January to protect itself against the pandemic that first emerged in neighbour and key ally China.
As a result, it has blockaded itself far more effectively than even the most hawkish advocate of sanctions could ever hope to achieve.
Pyongyang insists that it has not had a single coronavirus case – observers doubt the claim – but trade with China is at a tiny fraction of the usual level.