Kim Jong Un teased the possibility of improved relations with South Korea and vowed to expand “external relations” Thursday in his first remarks on the regime’s foreign policy since the election of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, state-run media said Friday.
The North Korean leader broached the issue of “affairs with South Korea as required by the prevailing situation and the changed times” and “declared the general orientation and the policy stand of our party for comprehensively expanding and developing the external relations,” during the third day of a rare ruling party congress, the official Korean Central News Agency said.
It did not elaborate, and it was unclear if “external relations” referred to the United States and South Korea or China and Russia, which both have strong ties with Pyongyang.
The KCNA report focused on Thursday’s meeting and said the party congress was continuing Friday, which is believed to be Kim’s 37th birthday. Some observers have said the meeting could conclude then, when it is expected to reveal more details of the North Korean leader’s foreign policy and economic plans.
The last party congress, held in 2016, lasted four days. The country typically reveals details of key meetings in state media a day after they are held.
During the second day of the congress, Kim delivered a thinly veiled reference to the North’s nuclear weapons program, vowing 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 North 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 an example of the North’s growing nuclear capabilities, Kim oversaw a massive military parade in October that unveiled a monster new missile 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 victory over Trump in the November U.S. presidential election and ahead of his Jan. 20 inauguration. 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.
Inter-Korean ties, meanwhile, have soured since Kim’s last summit with Trump collapsed over disagreements on what the North was willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.
Relations plunged even further last year when the North blew up an inter-Korean liaison office near the border in June and killed a South Korean fisheries official found drifting near its western sea border in September.
It is said that since Kim’s trip in March 2018 to Pyongyang’s sole patron, China — his first outside of his isolated country as leader — he had hoped to use a flurry of diplomatic visits and meetings to challenge the view of his nation as backward and dangerous.
But after the failure of his last summit with Trump and their photo-op meeting at the border between the two Koreas later in 2019, and as the COVID-19 pandemic provided an existential threat to his regime, Kim has appeared to recalibrate his focus internally.
During the third day of the congress — just the second since Kim came to power — the North Korean leader also stressed the importance of “thoroughly eliminating non-socialist elements” inside the country and further cementing the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea’s grip on power.
The regime is facing 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 novel coronavirus, which has forced the country to shut its borders.
KCNA said in its report Friday that Kim had “analyzed the successes made in strengthening the party organizationally and ideologically and improving its leadership role … and set forth the tasks and ways for immediately correcting the flaws existing in the party work at the present.”
On the first day of this year’s congress, Kim admitted that an economic strategy he’d unveiled at the event four years ago “fell extremely short” of its goals.
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 border closures, which have cut off much-needed Chinese trade and aid to the country.
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