SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to further bolster his military capability, maintain draconian anti-virus measures and push hard to improve the economy during a speech at a key political conference this week, state media reported Saturday.
A state media report on Kim’s speech at the five-day plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party didn’t carry any specific comments on dealings with the United States and South Korea. Some experts say this implies 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-reliant economy to overcome pandemic-related difficulties.
“The increasingly unstable military environment on the Korean Peninsula and international politics have instigated calls to vigorously push forward with our national defense build-up plans without any delay,” Kim was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Kim ordered the production of powerful, modern weapons systems to improve his military forces and called for the military’s “absolute loyalty and allegiance” to the ruling party led by him, according to KCNA.
KCNA said the plenary meeting set forth “tactical directions” for North Korea’s external relations including with South Korea, but didn’t elaborate. It made no mention of the United States.
The meeting, which was meant to review past projects and determine new policies, came as Kim marked 10 years in power last month. Since inheriting control upon his dictator father’s death in December 2011, Kim Jong Un has established absolute power at home and bolstered his nuclear and missile arsenals. But North Korea’s economy has suffered major setbacks in the past two years due to pandemic-caused border shutdowns, persistent U.N. sanctions and the fallout from 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 questioned if the current difficulties continue. High-profile political conferences like the plenary meeting give Kim an opportunity to solidify unity behind his leadership and show that he is firmly in control of the government. But it’s unclear whether such meetings offer any fundamental solutions to North Korea’s difficulties, which are largely attributed to decades-long mismanagement, a self-imposed isolation and its nuclear drive, which has made it one of the world’s most heavily sanctioned countries.
During a party congress in January last year, Kim admitted his previous economic development plans had failed and said his country faced “the worst-ever” situation.
But during this week’s plenary session, Kim claimed progress in new development plans, saying last year was “a year of great victory” and that this year’s objectives are “a great life-and-death struggle” that must be achieved. Kim cited progress in the agricultural, construction, electricity, mining, forestry and many other sectors, which couldn’t be independently confirmed.
According to South Korean estimates, North Korea’s trade with China, its biggest trading partner and an economic pipeline, shrank by about 80% in 2020 before it plunged again by two-thirds in the first nine months of last year. In 2020, North Korea’s economy suffered its biggest contraction since 1997 while its grain production also dropped to its lowest level since Kim took power in 2011. Seoul officials said the North’s grain production last year improved slightly.
During the plenary meeting, Kim ordered officials to prioritize emergency anti-pandemic campaigns, saying negligence and loopholes would not be tolerated. Analysts say Kim fears that his country’s fragile public health care infrastructure could not handle a major virus outbreak — though he maintains a questionable claim that North Korea is coronavirus-free.
“North Korea is expected to keep sealing off its borders and resort to self-reliance while doing a minimum level of essential trade with China due to the new (omicron) variant and the continuation of the pandemic worldwide,” said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute.
Cheong said there is “a very low possibility” that North Korea accepts U.S. calls to restart nuclear diplomacy or South Korea’s calls for a symbolic, political declaration to end the 1950-53 Korean War as a way to ease tensions.
“North Korea has been able to endure its draconian border restrictions and claim the success of ‘juche’ self-reliance because covert trade and assistance from China help meet minimum national needs,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at convincing North Korea to abandon its nuclear program in return for economic and political benefits collapsed in 2019 when then-President Donald Trump rejected Kim’s demands for extensive sanctions relief in return for partial denuclearization steps. Kim has since threatened to enlarge his nuclear arsenal and introduce high-tech weapons targeting the United States and its allies.