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[Editorial] Unviable approach

Pursuit of incompatible goals would only be an uphill battle for North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un admitted to a catastrophic failure in meeting the impoverished state’s economic goals in his opening address at the latest congress of the ruling Workers’ Party on Tuesday. He said the results of a five-year economic development drive, which ended last year, “fell extremely short of our goals,” according to the North’s state-run news agency.

Describing the past five years as the “worst of the worst” times for the country, Kim called for self-reliance to boost its strength.

“The surest and fastest way to tackle the current multiple challenges facing us is to make every possible effort to strengthen our own power and our own self-reliant capacity,” he said.

Conspicuously missing from Kim’s speech was a message on the North’s relationships with South Korea and the US.

This suggests Pyongyang will likely decide on its course of action after watching what initial moves the incoming US administration will take. It has still kept mum about Joe Biden’s election as US president.

By keeping silent on inter-Korean ties, Kim has reaffirmed he has no interest in efforts put forth by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to enhance reconciliation with the North.

This week’s party congress -- the second under the current leader, who took over in 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il -- comes as the North struggles to deal with a triple whammy of fallout from floods, a border closure due to the coronavirus pandemic and US-led international sanctions on the recalcitrant regime.

In the previous party congress in 2016, Pyongyang announced the five-year economic plan, while pledging to pursue the “Byungjin” policy of simultaneously seeking nuclear arms development and economic advancement. Kim’s acknowledgment of the failure to achieve economic goals proves the policy is unviable. He will continue to have difficulties bolstering the economy to sustain his repressive regime while retaining his nuclear arsenal.

During the ongoing party congress, the North is expected to announce a new economic development plan focused on increasing production in conventional industry sectors closely linked to people’s livelihoods. But it will be impossible for the isolated state to pull out of its dire economic situation as long as the international community maintains sanctions on Pyongyang for its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

In past years, the North has sought to overcome its predicament by resorting to measured military provocations instead of changing its unviable policy of pursuing incompatible goals. The tactic has not worked well and will only push it further to the brink.

US President Donald Trump, who met Kim three times in 2018 and 2019 and has boasted of good personal ties between them, has not budged from the position that a significant lifting of sanctions will not come without substantial progress toward the complete denuclearization of the North.

Biden, who will be sworn in as US president on Jan. 20, has called for a “principled diplomacy,” favoring working-level negotiations over Trump’s top-down approach. This means there is even less of a chance that the North will be recognized as a nuclear-armed state by making concessions short of complete denuclearization.

Some pundits say Pyongyang might test-fire a range of upgraded ballistic missiles in the early months of the incoming Biden administration in a bid to pressure Washington to agree to a deal on its terms. But returning to its previous pattern of action would do more harm than good to the Kim regime in the increasingly adverse environment.

In a New Year’s address to his staff Monday, South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young said he hoped to receive a positive message of cross-border dialogue and cooperation from North Korea in time for the party congress. His wish, like Seoul’s previous reconciliatory gestures toward Pyongyang, has gone unanswered.

The Moon administration’s blind pursuit of its peace agenda for the peninsula has been criticized for turning a blind eye to dire human rights conditions in the North and weakening Seoul’s vital alliance with Washington. North Korea’s deepening predicament should pave the way for closer ties with the incoming US administration to increase pressure on Pyongyang to change its tack. It will not help bring true peace to the peninsula by removing nuclear threats from the North if Moon and his aides continue with their senseless efforts to pander to the Kim regime.
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