North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stuck to a familiar playbook at a party congress, vowing to develop more advanced nuclear weapons and missiles and lambasting the United States as its “biggest enemy,” state-run media said Saturday, less than two weeks before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
Kim delivered the challenge to Biden at the key meeting a day earlier, saying that Washington’s “hostile policy” toward Pyongyang would continue regardless of who occupies the White House.
“Our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on suppressing and subduing the U.S., our biggest enemy and main obstacle” to the North’s development, the official Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying during a marathon nine-hour report to the rare session of party congress.
“No matter who is in power in the United States, the true nature of the U.S. and its fundamental policies toward North Korea never change,” Kim said, vowing to bolster ties with “anti-imperialist, independent forces.”
The North Korean leader laid out a plan to further upgrade his nuclear arsenal by continuing to develop tactical nuclear weapons, which are smaller and lighter than standard bombs and are designed for the battlefield or limited strikes. He also said the country would continue to refine its ability to make large warheads and improve his military’s ability to conduct “pre-emptive” and “retaliatory” strikes on strategic targets as far as 15,000 km (9,300 miles) away.
While signaling a desire to develop land and submarine-launched solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can be deployed and moved more easily than liquid-fueled weapons, Kim also vowed to build reconnaissance satellites and drones.
Perhaps most ominously in the near-term, Kim said the country was preparing for the test and production of a variety of new weapons, including missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads and “hypersonic gliding flight warheads” for a new type of missile. Research on a nuclear submarine — separate from a modified submarine revealed in 2019 — was also nearly complete, Kim added.
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 that some analysts believe could carry enough nuclear warheads to overwhelm existing U.S. and Japanese missile defenses.
Jenny Town, an expert on North Korea with the Washington-based Stimson Center, said that given Kim’s statements, “it is likely we’ll see some kind of testing resume, especially on improving missile accuracy.”
A new weapons test by Pyongyang, especially of a longer-range missile, could have dire repercussions for the incoming U.S. administration’s North Korea policy, potentially handcuffing it to a harder-line approach and rallying regional allies like Japan around strengthened sanctions and moves to further isolate the country.
North Korea has a long history of testing new American leaders. It fired off a long-range rocket and conducted a nuclear test just months after U.S. President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and welcomed Trump with a series of missile tests early in his term.
But the background has shifted substantially since then, with the North’s successful test of what it said was a powerful hydrogen bomb and a launch of a missile that analysts say is capable of striking much, if not all of, the continental United States.
“North Korea’s weapons are so advanced that any testing at this point would be extremely dangerous and potentially destabilizing for the region. Kim knows that, and his plans for a nuclear buildup serve as a potent warning,” said Jean Lee, an expert on the two Koreas at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.
Still, Kim’s regime 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 inauguration.
During his speech to the party congress, Kim did “not rule out diplomacy.” Instead, he said his plans to bolster the country’s nuclear “war deterrent” was intended to gain leverage in dealing with Washington and its allies in order to “drive diplomacy in the right direction and guarantee its success” in achieving “peace” on the Korean Peninsula.
“No country on this planet is constantly threatened with war like ours, and our people’s longing for peace is very strong,” Kim said.
Trump held two landmark summits with Kim in hopes of striking a deal to have the North Korean leader relinquish his nukes in exchange for security assurances and financial incentives. But those denuclearization talks have been deadlocked since Kim’s last summit with Trump in February 2019 collapsed over disagreements on what the North was willing to give up in exchange for sanctions relief.
Since the failure of the last summit, Kim has largely bided his time, conducting a flurry of short-range missile tests that garnered little pushback from Trump — much to Tokyo’s chagrin — but abiding by a self-imposed moratorium on tests of nuclear bombs and long-range missiles.
But he has been forced to recalibrate his plans as the North faces a number of domestic challenges, including crushing U.N. sanctions over the country’s nuclear weapons program and the coronavirus, which has forced the country to shutter its borders.
Both challenges, as well as a spate of recent natural disasters, have left his country’s economy in shambles, prompting Kim to admit that an economic strategy he unveiled at his first party congress 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 the border closures, which have cut off much-needed Chinese trade and aid to the country.
Kim’s remarks Friday suggest yet another recalibration of his plans as he hopes to bring the issue of North Korean nukes back to the top of the U.S. agenda.
Although Pyongyang has called Biden a “rabid dog” and the incoming president has labeled Kim a “thug,” Biden has said he is willing to engage in “principled diplomacy” with the North Korean leader. 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 experts agree that Trump’s approach, while packed to the brim with pomp and fanfare, did little to actually rein in Kim’s nuclear ambitions — and may have poisoned the well for Biden.
“The Biden-(Kamala) Harris administration certainly is inheriting a situation with North Korea that is exponentially worse than it was four years ago when President Trump took office,” the Wilson Center’s Lee said.
“Kim Jong Un learned his lesson from the bungled negotiations in Hanoi,” she added. “Since then, his strategy has been to strengthen his arsenal so that he’s in a better position for any future nuclear negotiations. And we all should be terrified by that.”
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