SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to further strengthen his military capabilities, maintain draconian anti-virus measures and stand up for improving the economy in a speech at a major political conference this week, reported state media on Saturday.
A state media report on Kim’s speech at the five-day plenary session of the ruling Labor Party contained no specific comments on how the US and South Korea were dealt with. Some experts say this implies that Kim has no interest in resuming talks with Washington and Seoul anytime soon, and would rather keep his country’s borders closed while seeking a stronger self-contained economy to overcome pandemic-related troubles .
“The increasingly unstable military environment on the Korean peninsula and international politics have called for our plans to build national defense to be pursued vigorously without delay,” Kim was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim ordered the production of more powerful, modern weapon systems to improve his armed forces and, according to the KCNA, called for the military’s “absolute loyalty and loyalty” to the ruling party he led.
KCNA said the plenary session set out “tactical directions” for North Korea’s external relations, including with South Korea, but did not elaborate on them. He didn’t mention the United States.
The meeting, meant to review past projects and set new guidelines, took place as Kim celebrated 10 years in power last month. Since inheriting control following the death of his dictator in December 2011, Kim Jong Un has built absolute power at home and strengthened his nuclear and missile arsenal. But North Korea’s economy has suffered severe setbacks in the past two years due to pandemic border closings, ongoing UN sanctions and the aftermath of natural disasters.
There are no signs of political instability in North Korea, but some experts say the long-term stability of Kim’s leadership could be called into question if current troubles persist. High profile political conferences like the plenary session give Kim an opportunity to cement the unity behind his leadership and show that he has a firm grip on the government. However, it is unclear whether such meetings offer fundamental solutions to North Korea’s difficulties, mainly due to decades of mismanagement, self-imposed isolation, and its nuclear drive that has made it one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world.
During a party conference in January last year, Kim admitted that his previous plans for economic development had failed and said his country was facing the “worst” situation ever.
But during this week’s plenary session Kim claimed to be making progress on the new development plans, saying that last year has been “a year of great victory” and that this year’s goals are “a great life-and-death struggle” to be achieved must. Kim cited advances in agriculture, construction, electricity, mining, forestry, and many other sectors that could not be independently verified.
According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s trade with China, its largest trading partner and an economic pipeline, contracted about 80% in 2020 before plummeting again by two-thirds in the first nine months of last year. In 2020, North Korea’s economy suffered its biggest decline since 1997, while its grain production fell to its lowest level since Kim came to power in 2011. Seoul officials said grain production in the north has improved slightly over the past year.
During the plenary session, Kim ordered officials to prioritize emergency campaigns against pandemics, saying negligence and loopholes will not be tolerated. Analysts say Kim fears his country’s fragile public health infrastructure could not handle a major virus outbreak – despite maintaining a questionable claim that North Korea is coronavirus-free.
“Due to the new (Omicron) variant and the global pandemic, North Korea will likely continue to seal its borders and fall back on independence while doing a minimum of significant trade with China,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang. at the private Sejong Institute.
Cheong said there was “a very small chance” that North Korea would accept US demands to resume nuclear diplomacy or South Korea’s demands for a symbolic, political declaration to end the Korean War in 1950-53 as a way to ease tensions.
“North Korea is able to endure its draconian border restrictions and maintain the success of ‘juche’ independence because undercover trade and aid from China help meet the minimum national needs,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor at the Ewha University in Seoul.
US-led diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in return for economic and political gain collapsed in 2019 when then-President Donald Trump rejected Kim’s calls for sweeping sanctions in return for partial denuclearization moves. Kim has since threatened to expand its nuclear arsenal and introduce high-tech weapons against the US and its allies.