SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stressed the need to drastically improve his nation’s ties with the outside world as he addressed a major political conference for the third day.
State media said Kim also reviewed relations with rival South Korea but didn’t explain what steps he said he wanted to take. Observers have expected Kim to use the first congress of the ruling Workers’ Party in five years to send conciliatory gestures toward Seoul and Washington as he faces deepening economic troubles at home.
In his speech on the third day of the meeting Thursday, 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.
Kim also examined relations with South Korea “as required by the prevailing situation and the changed times,” KCNA said.
The congress is the party’s top decision-making body that reviews past projects, lays out new priorities and reshuffles top officials. It was convened as Kim struggles to overcome what he calls “multiple crises” caused by an economy battered by pandemic-related border closings, a series of natural disasters and U.S.-led economic sanctions.
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 to acquire the ability to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons, Kim abruptly launched high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with President Donald Trump, which awarded him long-desired legitimacy on the world stage. 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. Kim criticized working people’s organizations including the youth league for allegedly failing to fulfill their duties and said the league must prioritize “ideological education” above other tasks, it said.
Kim’s government has been cracking down on what it calls “alien, unsound non-socialist practices.” Last month, state media said North Korea’s parliament legislated “a law on rejecting reactionary ideology and culture.” 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 once flourished 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.