North Korean leader Kim Jong Un opened his country’s first ruling party congress in five years with an admission of policy failures and a vow to set new developmental goals, state media has reported.
The Workers’ Party Congress met in Pyongyang on Tuesday with thousands of delegates and observers in attendance, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
In his opening speech, KCNA cited Mr Kim as saying the developmental goals set in a 2016 congress “were not met in almost all areas to a great extent.
“We should further promote and expand the successes and victories that we’ve achieved through our painstaking efforts but prevent us from having the painful lessons again,” he said.
While underlining the need to start the work to develop the economy under a new five-year plan, Mr Kim reviewed the present status of North Korea’s metal, chemical, electric and other key industries and set unspecified tasks for future development, according to KCNA.
This year’s congress comes as Mr Kim faces the toughest challenge of his nine-year rule because of what he has called “multiple crises” – an economy hammered by pandemic-caused border closings, a series of natural disasters last summer and persistent US-led sanctions.
During Tuesday’s speech, Mr Kim described the difficulties as “the worst of all” and “unprecedented”.
He is also likely to see US policy change under President-elect Joe Biden, who unlike President Donald Trump is expected to avoid top-down summit diplomacy with him and maintain punishing sanctions on the North, unless Mr Kim takes significant steps toward denuclearisation.
Officially, the congress is the party’s top decision-making body, though key day-to-day decisions are made by Mr Kim and his inner circle.
The congress would still provide Mr Kim with a chance to solidify his authority by announcing new goals, naming loyal lieutenants to top posts and calling for stronger unity behind his leadership.
North Korea’s year-long closure of its border with China, its biggest trading partner, to guard against Covid-19 is taking a heavy toll on its already-troubled economy.
Bilateral trade volume plummeted by about 79% in the first 11 months of last year from the corresponding period in 2019, according to analyst Song Jaeguk at Seoul’s IBK Economic Research Institute.
North Korea’s GDP was estimated to have contracted by 9.3% in 2020, he said.
Following the sharp drop in external trade, North Korea experienced a fourfold increase of imported foodstuffs like sugar and seasonings at markets while its factory operation rate dropped to its lowest level since Mr Kim took power because of a shortage of raw materials, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in late November.
“I can’t think about any words to describe how difficult the situation is the North Koreans are going through now, rather than saying they’re suffering tremendously,” Mr Song said.
“If the coronavirus pandemic continues, they’ll suffer harder.”
Many experts say North Korea has no other option but to maintain its border closure as the pandemic continues worldwide, because its public health care system remains broken and a major outbreak could cause a dire consequence.
Despite taking draconian anti-virus measures, North Korea has steadfastly argued it has not found a single virus case on its soil, a claim widely disputed by foreign experts.
During his speech, Mr Kim said the surest and fastest way to resolve the ongoing difficulties is to further bolster internal strength.
Observers predicted Mr Kim would use the congress to call for building a stronger self-reliant economy and launching new productivity campaigns to squeeze his people for more labour.
During the congress, the North may issue conciliatory messages in consideration of ties with the incoming Biden administration while underscoring its traditional ties with China and Russia, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said in a report on the outlook for the congress.
Mr Kim did not mention the United States in his speech.
Some experts say Mr Kim is not likely to launch a major provocation anytime soon because that would further dim the prospect for early talks with Mr Biden’s government, which faces many urgent domestic issues.
But they say Mr Kim may resume high-profile missile tests when the US and South Korea militaries conduct their annual springtime military drills.