By Hyung-Jin Kim, The Associated Press on January 5, 2021.
SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened his country’s first ruling party congress in five years with an admission that past policies had failed and vowed to set new developmental goals, state media reported Wednesday.
The Workers’ Party Congress, the party’s top decision-making body, met in Pyongyang on Tuesday to determine “a fresh line of struggle and strategic and tactical policies,” with thousands of delegates and observers in attendance, the Korean Central News Agency reported.
Kim said the developmental goals set in a 2016 congress “were not met in almost all areas to a great extent,” KNCA cited him as saying.
“We should further promote and expand the successes and victories that we’ve achieved through our painstaking efforts but prevent us from having the painful lessons again,” he said.
While underlining the need for a new five-year plan, Kim reviewed the present status of North Korea’s metal, chemical, electric and other key industries and set unspecified tasks for future development, according to KCNA.
This year’s congress comes as Kim faces the toughest challenge of nine-year rule because of what he has called “multiple crises” __ an economy hammered by pandemic-caused border closings, a series of natural disasters last summer and persistent U.S.-led sanctions. During Tuesday’s speech, Kim described the difficulties as “the worst of all” and “unprecedented.”
He also is likely to see U.S. policy change under President-elect Joe Biden, who unlike President Donald Trump is expected to avoid top-down summit diplomacy with him and maintain punishing sanctions on the North, unless Kim takes significant steps toward denuclearization.
Few experts doubt Kim’s grip on power. But a prolonged coronavirus-related lockdown could still further destabilize food and foreign exchange markets and aggravate public livelihoods in North Korea, posing a burden on Kim’s authority, some observers say.
Officially, the congress is the party’s highest-level decision-making organ, though key day-to-day decisions are made by Kim and his inner circle. The delegates gathered for the congress are expected to endorse new initiatives by Kim without major debates. The congress would still provide Kim with a chance to solidity his authority by announcing new visions, naming loyal lieutenants to top posts and calling for a stronger unity behind his leadership.
It’s now known how long this year’s congress will be held. It was held for four days in 2006, five days in 1980 and 12 days in 1970.
North Korea’s yearlong closure of its border with China, its biggest trading partner, to guard against COVID-19 is taking a heavy toll on its already-troubled economy. Bilateral trade volume plummeted by about 79% in the first 11 months of last year from the corresponding period in 2019, analyst Song Jaeguk at Seoul’s IBK Economic Research Institute. North Korea’s GDP was estimated to have contracted by 9.3% in 2020, he said.
Following the sharp drop in external trade, North Korea experienced a fourfold increase of imported foodstuffs like sugar and seasonings at markets while its factory operation rate dropped to its lowest level since Kim took power because of a shortage of raw materials, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in late November.
“I can’t think about any words to describe how difficult situation the North Koreans are going through now, rather than saying they’re suffering tremendously,” Song said. “If the coronavirus pandemic continues, they’ll suffer harder.”
Many experts say North Korea has no other option but to maintain its border closure as the pandemic continues worldwide, because its public health care system remain broken and a major outbreak could cause a dire consequence. Despite taking draconian anti-virus measures, North Korea has steadfastly argued it hasn’t found a single virus case on its soil, a claim widely disputed by foreign experts.
During his speech, Kim said the surest and fastest ways to resolve the ongoing difficulties is further bolstering internal strength. Observers predicted Kim would use the congress to call for building a stronger self-reliant economy and launching new productivity campaigns to squeeze his people for more labour. Last week, North Korea said it successfully completed an 80-day labour campaign.
Kim has been pushing to burnish an image as a leader caring for public livelihoods.
State media said Kim sent New Year’s Day cards to ordinary citizens in what Seoul called the first such letter by a North Korean leader in 26 years. During a speech in October, Kim shed tears while thanking the people for withstanding difficulties. He’s also made an unusually large number of visits to rural areas hit by typhoons and flooding last summer that destroyed houses, farming fields and infrastructure.
During the congress, the North may issue conciliatory messages in consideration of ties with the incoming Biden administration while underscoring its traditional ties with China and Russia, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said in a report on the outlook for the congress.
Kim didn’t mention the United States or South Korea in his Tuesday speech. He’s expected to make a few more speeches before the congress ends.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said in a statement it hopes the North Korean congress will serve as a venue to help promote ties between the Koreas and promote peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Some experts say Kim won’t likely launch a major provocation anytime soon because that would further dim the prospect for early talks with the Biden government, which faces many urgent domestic issues. But they say Kim may resume high-profile missile tests when the U.S. and South Korea militaries conduct their annual springtime military drills.
Trump cancelled or scaled back many regular military drills with South Korea to provide more space for diplomacy.
The Kim-Trump diplomacy has largely remained deadlocked for about two years over a U.S. refusal to provide North Korea with extensive sanctions relief in exchange of a partial surrender of its nuclear capability. In its late November intelligence briefing, South Korea’s spy agency said Kim had ordered diplomats abroad not to provoke the United States due to worries about Biden’s new approach on his government.