North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has opened a rare ruling party congress — only the second since the strongman came to power — with an admission that the economic strategy he unveiled at the previous meeting had not panned out, state media reported Wednesday.

“The five-year economic development strategy period wrapped up last year, but the results in most areas fell extremely short of our goals,” the ruling party’s Rodong Sinmun daily quoted Kim as saying in his opening speech a day earlier.

Kim also said he would reveal “the key line of struggle and strategic and tactical policies” for “the cause of national reunification, promoting external relations and strengthening the work of the Party” during the congress, state-run Korean Central News Agency said.

Kim’s admission of economic failures comes as the country faces a three-pronged challenge in the form of crushing U.N. sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, recovery from damage wrought by natural disasters last year and the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the country to close its borders.

He also again touted self-reliance in his opening speech, as he seeks to present an image of his country weathering challenges that observers say represent the biggest threat to his regime since he took power.

Photos released by state-run media showed Kim speaking before hundreds of maskless North Korean officials. North Korea has maintained that it has seen no cases of the deadly novel coronavirus, a claim that Japanese and U.S. officials have called dubious.

Economists say North Korea’s economy is in worse shape today than when Kim took over, after his father’s death in 2011. Much of this economic damage has been due to border closures, which have cut off much-needed Chinese trade and aid to the country.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor and expert on North Korea at Ewha University in Seoul, said Kim was likely to use the party congress as “a tool for national unity and governing legitimacy.

“Kim is responding to the economic crisis with political theater because he lacks resources under sanctions and self-imposed pandemic restrictions,” Easley said. “Kim’s admission of policy failures is now an established pattern to make him appear a man of the people without accepting personal consequences.”

Although the word “nuclear” did not come up in his speech, Kim noted that his country had created a “strong guarantee” that protects the “destiny of the motherland” — a thinly veiled reference to its nuclear weapons program.

Officials attend the first day of the 8th Congress of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Tuesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS
Officials attend the first day of the 8th Congress of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang on Tuesday. | KCNA / VIA REUTERS

North Korea has not tested a nuclear bomb or launched a long-range missile since 2017, but experts say the country has continued to build up and refine its arsenal — even after Kim’s three meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump.

In October, Kim oversaw a massive military parade that unveiled a huge new missile some analysts believe could carry enough warheads to overwhelm existing U.S. and Japanese missile defenses.

Since then Kim has apparently been biding his time, especially since Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump in the November U.S. presidential election and ahead of his Jan. 20 swearing-in. Trump was widely seen as the North Korean leader’s preferred candidate.

Pyongyang has called Biden a “rabid dog” and the incoming president has labeled Kim a “thug,” but North Korea reached out to a European lawmaker last month, saying that it wants to have good ties with the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reported on Dec. 31.

Biden has said he is willing to engage in “principled diplomacy” with Pyongyang. His camp has suggested this could include meetings with Kim if they are part of a strategy that helps make progress toward North Korea’s denuclearization.

But a formal expression of Kim’s stance toward Biden may not even be in the cards at the congress, North Korea-watching website 38 North wrote in an analysis last month.

“Despite speculation about timing the Party Congress around the inauguration of the new US president, the main purpose of the Congress is domestic, and chances are Kim will not spend much time or lay out much detail on foreign policy,” it said.

“If there is to be an olive branch, it is unlikely to be nakedly extended,” the site added, “but rather appear in gauzy form, to be detailed in a formal statement weeks later.”

Rather, the congress could see internal moves such as a leadership shuffle, with Kim possibly elevating his powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, into a new position.

The regime has not announced a timeline for the party congress, but the last one, in 2016, spanned four days. Observers said it was possible the same time frame could play out this year, with the congress wrapping up on Friday — believed to be Kim Jong Un’s 37th birthday. Kim’s exact birth date remains a closely guarded secret in North Korea.

In addition to announcing its five-year economic plan at the previous congress in 2016, Kim called his country a “responsible nuclear power” and emphasized its commitment to its byungjin policy of simultaneously pursuing economic development and its nuclear weapons program.

In a signal of what to expect at the ongoing congress, Kim implied during a plenary meeting of the ruling party’s Central Committee in January last year that there would be a return to that policy, saying “nothing has changed between the days when we maintained the line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of nuclear force.”

Kim’s Tuesday speech appeared to point to a similar trajectory.

“In this world full of harsh challenges and instability, it is clear to all of us that we must point to a shortcut that leads (the country) to a stronger and more prosperous path and brings happiness to our people,” he said, without indicating what that “shortcut” may be.

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