North Korea wrapped up a rare eight-day party congress Tuesday, with its leader Kim Jong-un calling for stronger nuclear deterrence and maximum military power to round off one of the biggest political events in Pyongyang in the last five years.
With only a week until US President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office, Kim’s outlining of ambitious military goals and a wish list of advanced weapons during the longer-than-usual congress is a message of defiance against Washington, experts say, with aims to pressure the new administration to accept Pyongyang as a nuclear state for future talks.
“During the party congress, Kim focused on talking about the nuclear issue -- not just nuclear capability, but a detailed portfolio of advanced nuclear weapons it plans to have,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University. “This is to declare the North a de facto nuclear state and demand the US recognize Pyongyang as a nuclear power. Pyongyang will only consider arms control talks with Washington in the future, but has no intention of denuclearizing.”
Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, echoed a similar stance that Pyongyang’s emphasis on nuclear armament is part of the regime’s quest for legitimacy of its nuclear weapons and to prepare for future negotiations with the US.
“Kim has set a guideline for (future) North Korea-US talks,” said Shin. “It’s a warning that the North will not give up nuclear weapons and is asking the US to lift sanctions. If the US does not ease the sanctions, Kim will likely continue to go with a ‘my way’ strategy, such as developing nuclear-powered submarine.”
On Tuesday, Kim told the congress in his closing remark that it will strengthen nuclear deterrence while doing everything it can to build the strongest military, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
Kim had called the US the “foremost principal enemy” of his country earlier during the week-long session, saying that the North’s policy toward Washington “will never change, whoever comes into power,” in an apparent message to the incoming Biden administration.
Kim, however, did not completely shut the door on diplomacy with the US, but put the ball in Washington’s court, demanding the US withdraw its “hostile policy” first in order for talks to proceed.
Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, believes that Pyongyang’s hardline message is geared both to Washington and North Korean citizens.
“With North’s unstable situation, Kim is underscoring military strength to tighten his grip of the country and cement internal solidarity,” he said. “With no distinguished achievement to show to his people, Kim is stressing nuclear power, and has solidified a one-man rule in his country.”
At the party congress, Kim was named the ruling party’s general secretary, the title formerly held by his late father and grandfather, in what appears as a symbolic move aimed at bolstering his authority amid the country’s hardship brought by international sanctions and deepened by natural disasters like COVID-19 pandemic and floods.
“Kim is also indicating that he will lead inter-Korean relations and unification, through strong nuclear power and ever more reinforced Kim’s ruling system,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program. “With North Korea having laid out specific policy stance to the South, Seoul has to come up with a diplomatic and security strategy in respond.”
Separately, Kim Yo-jong, the leader’s younger sister, on Wednesday slammed South Korean officials as “idiots” after the South’s military said it had detected signs of a possible military parade in Pyongyang over the weekend.
“We are only holding a military parade in the capital city, not military exercises targeting anybody, nor launching anything. Why do they take trouble craning their necks to follow what‘s happening in the North,” Kim said in a statement carried by the KCNA, adding it’s a clear expression of the South’s hostile approach toward “fellow countrymen in the North.”
Her statement arrived after Kim was seen removed from the party’s powerful Central Committee Politburo, where she had served as an alternate member since last year, raising speculation that she was demoted and no longer has the same level of status.
But the statement being released under her name shows she remains powerful, and that she is still serving as a mouthpiece of the regime for the US and South Korea, experts said.
“Through the statement, she is flaunting her authority, while showing her loyalty to her brother Kim Jong-un by playing a role of a villain,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “It also serves as a larger message to the South to stop any hostile activities against Pyongyang.”
“While Kim’s official ranking has dwindled, that doesn’t mean her political status has declined,” said Cheong, adding she is still in charge of South Korean affairs.
“With delivery of such a harsh criticism against South Korea, it will be difficult to restore inter-Korean relations in the near future.”
By Ahn Sung-mi and Choi Si-young (firstname.lastname@example.org