​Kim Jong-un Makes use of Social gathering ​Congress to Double Down on Nuclear Program

SEOUL, South Korea – When North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened a party conference over the past eight days, outside analysts wondered whether his failure to improve his people’s economic life would undermine the dictator’s nuclear ambitions.

At the meeting of his ruling Labor Party, Mr. Kim gave a clear answer: absolutely not.

The building of a nuclear force is “a strategic and predominant goal” and “exploitation is of the utmost importance in the history of the Korean nation”. In a resolution adopted on Tuesday at the end of Congress setting out the party’s plans for the next five years, he vowed to “further strengthen our nuclear deterrence”.

During the party convention, the first of its kind since 2016, Mr Kim doubled down on his nuclear weapons buildup and offered an unusually detailed list of weapons the North was developing. These included “state-of-the-art tactical nuclear weapons”, “hypersonic glide warheads”, “multi-warhead” missiles, military reconnaissance satellites, a nuclear-powered submarine, and solid-fuel ICBMs fired from land and submarines.

The country’s economy has been hit by the pandemic, major flood damage and years of international sanctions. Mr. Kim admitted that his economic plans had failed but said that he did not see his nuclear weapons program as an obstacle to rebuilding the economy.

Rather, he saw it as the best instrument to ensure the continuity of his dynasty and to make economic and other concessions to the United States, which he described as “our main enemy” during the congress.

Towards the end of President Trump’s tenure, he leaves a North Korea with a more ambitious nuclear program than ever after touting its uninterrupted diplomacy and “personal relationship” with Mr Kim.

“It’s nuclear intimidation, nuclear blackmail,” said Tae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat in London who migrated to South Korea, where he is now a lawmaker. “Kim Jong-un suggests that his country’s nuclear capabilities will skyrocket if negotiations with the Biden government fail.”

Mr Kim appears ready to negotiate with President-elect Joseph R. Biden’s new administration, but he is unlikely to seek talks on abolishing his nuclear weapons program. It is more likely that he will propose the kind of nuclear arms control negotiations that the United States had with the former Soviet Union.

In his lengthy policy review at Congress over the weekend, Mr. Kim described North Korea as “a responsible nuclear-armed state” that would only use its arsenal if threatened with a nuclear weapon first. Mr. Kim said he would “never rule out diplomacy” but would use his growing nuclear force as a powerful lever that would “guarantee its success”.

Mr. Kim said his goal in negotiations with Washington was to “withdraw its hostile policies” towards the North, including an end to sanctions and joint military exercises with South Korea and other alliance activities in the Korean peninsula. But Seoul and Washington say their military exercises are being forced by the growing nuclear and missile threat from the north.

“The north will continue its tough policy, not denuclearize, talk to the US, but about what Kim Jong-un sees as being on an equal footing with a nuclear power.” David Maxwell, a senior fellow of the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an email.

It is unclear whether and how quickly North Korea can achieve the weapons development goals set by Mr. Kim. But his increase in stakes reflects the harsh realities he faces as the country’s top leader.

He has been in power for a decade, and Mr. Kim had little besides his nuclear arsenal to use as a lever in negotiations with Washington and to show his people strength.

On Sunday delegates commended Mr. Kim for turning their country “into a world military power” and elected him general secretary of the Labor Party, a new title created during Congress.

Mr Kim did not seem to offer a new vision for the economy of the north and affirmed “self-reliance” and “self-sufficiency” as the “main foundation and theme” of his economic policy for the years to come. He mainly reiterated his exhortations to increase production in all domestic industries, become less dependent on imports and allocate resources more efficiently, and fight “anti-socialist acts, abuse of power, bureaucracy, irregularities and corruption” among civil servants.

Under Mr Kim, North Korea has conducted four of its six underground nuclear tests and tested three ICBMs in flight. Following the last of these missile tests in 2017, Mr Kim said North Korea was now able to target the continental United States with nuclear missiles.

The United Nations Security Council responded with devastating sanctions, banning coal, iron ore, textiles, fishing and all other major exports. Mr Kim held talks with Mr Trump in 2018 after imposing a moratorium on nuclear and long-range and long-range killings on ballistic missile testing. But his three meetings with the American leader failed to bring an agreement.

Mr. Kim later said that his country would thwart sanctions by building a “self-contained” economy and that he no longer felt bound by the moratorium. At a night military parade in Pyongyang, the capital, on October 10, North Korea unveiled the largest ICBM to date that has not yet been tested.

North Korea will likely wait to see if the Biden government suggests dialogue, said Shin Beom-chul, an analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy in Seoul. If its expectations are not met, it will continue to negotiate through provocation, Shin said.

“The Biden team should be prepared for provocation and escalation in the first half of the year,” said Lee Sung-yoon, professor of Korean studies at Tufts University. “It was almost predetermined, and Kim Jong-un has certainly been signaling an escalation for a year.”

While trying to increase pressure on Washington, Mr. Kim repeated his attempt to weaken the alliance between South Korea and the United States.

In a nationally televised speech Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he was not giving up his efforts to revive stalled talks between North Korea and the United States and between the two Koreas. He suggested that North and South start working together to fight infectious diseases, including Covid-19.

Over the weekend, Mr. Kim called such cooperation “negligible” and said that if South Korea is to fix ties it must “stop all hostile acts” such as importing American weapons and joint military exercises with the United States.

Mr. Kim’s growing distrust of Washington and Seoul was also reflected in his party’s leadership reshuffle during Congress. Officials who led Mr. Kim’s diplomatic offensive towards Washington and Seoul have been downgraded. Among them were Kim Yo-jong, his sister, the first deputy foreign minister, Choe Son-hui, and Kim Yong-chol, a former vice chairman of the party.

Ms. Kim made a bubbly statement on Wednesday calling the South Korean military “the idiot” to monitor for signs of a military parade in Pyongyang during the convention.

During the congress, Mr. Kim emphasized closer ties with China, with which his country is inextricably linked to the “fight for the common cause”. Although the pandemic has cut much of official trade between the two communist allies, American officials recently warned that China has continued to extend a lifeline to North Korea despite international sanctions.

North Korea’s deepening ties with China don’t bode well for Washington, which is struggling to respond to an increasingly aggressive and influential Beijing.

“Relations between the US and China have deteriorated to the detriment of the enforcement of UN sanctions,” said Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “When the Biden administration takes office, Kim continues to seek out external concessions rather than offer them.”

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