North Korean leader Kim Jong Un told the second day of a rare ruling party congress that he wants to bolster the nuclear-armed country’s “defense capabilities,” state-run media said Thursday, just two weeks before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.
In a report to the congress, Kim vowed to “reliably protect the security of the country and people and the peaceful environment … by placing the state defense capabilities on a much higher level, and put forth goals for realizing it,” the official Korean Central News Agency said.
Although the word “nuclear” did not come up in his report or in a speech on the first day of the congress, Kim noted in his earlier address that the North had created a “strong guarantee” that protects the “destiny of the motherland” — a thinly veiled reference to its nuclear weapons program.
The North has not tested a nuclear bomb or launched a long-range missile since last 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 an example of the North’s growing nuclear capabilities, Kim oversaw a massive military parade in October that unveiled a monster new missile that some analysts believe could carry enough nuclear warheads to overwhelm existing U.S. and Japanese missile defenses.
Still, the regime in Pyongyang has been careful in both its words and actions so as not to alienate Biden after his 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.
The North’s party congress — just the second since Kim came to power — opened Tuesday, with Kim admitting that an economic strategy he unveiled at the first meeting “fell extremely short” of its goals. The country typically reveals details of key meetings in state media a day after they are held.
On the first day of the meeting, 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.
The North Korean leader’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, recovering from damage wrought by natural disasters last year and the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced the country to shutter its borders.
Kim also again touted self-reliance in his opening speech as he seeks to present an image that his country is 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 thousands of maskless officials. North Korea has maintained that it has seen zero cases of the deadly coronavirus, a claim that Japanese and U.S. officials have called dubious.
Economists say the North’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 the border closures, which have cut off much-needed Chinese trade and aid to the country.
The regime has not announced a timeline for the party congress, but state media said the third day was to be held Thursday. The last congress, 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, which is believed to be Kim Jong Un’s 37th birthday. Kim’s exact birth date remains a closely guarded secret in the North.
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