Leader Kim Jong Un branded the United States North Korea’s “biggest enemy” to be met with increased military capabilities in remarks at a ruling party congress that experts said reveal that he faces the same limited pathways out of his country’s poverty and isolation that his father did twenty years ago.
North Korea’s economy lies in shambles between the double pinch of international nuclear sanctions and the closure of the border with China due to the coronavirus combined with a summer of natural disasters that ravaged cropland, while Pyongyang has shunned a South Korean government that would eagerly help once progress is made on the nagging nuclear dispute.
Kim finds himself in the same position his father Kim Jong Il was in—needing a diplomatic and security breakthrough with the United States on his country’s nuclear program, while uncomfortably dependent on China to make up food and energy shortages.
“Our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on subduing the U.S., our biggest enemy and main obstacle to our innovated development,” North Korean state media quoted Kim as saying on Saturday at the ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s Eighth Congress.
“No matter who is in power in the U.S., the true nature of the U.S. and its fundamental policies towards North Korea never change,” Kim said. He promised to pursue closer ties with “anti-imperialist, independent forces” and vowed to improve Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
On Sunday, Kim assumed the title of general secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, following his late father and grandfather in what is seen as a symbolic move aimed at legitimizing his authority during what Kim last week described as “difficult times.”
He opened the congress last week with a rare admission of the country’s failures, saying the country “fell a long way short of the set objectives” of the five-year economic plan introduced in 2016, the last time the congress met, which was the first such meeting since 1980.
Experts in South Korea and the United States said that Kim faces the same conundrum as his father: Reversing the country’s sliding fortunes depends on either dealing with the U.S. and its allies to resolve a 25-year-old nuclear disarmament dispute or leaning ever more heavily on a China whose patience is not infinite.
North Korea watchers said Kim is likely to turn to China for support, like his father.
The party opened the congress emphasizing the country’s close relationship with China, with the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper running a lengthy congratulatory from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to the Korean Workers’ Party which highlighted cooperation between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Kim.
Joseph Detrani, the former U.S. special envoy for nuclear talks with North Korea, said the emphasis on Beijing ties reflects the fact that “China is North Korea’s major trading partner and its economic safety net, with China providing the North with… the crude oil and petroleum products needed for its economy to function.”
“As North Korea deals with a Biden Administration, they know China will continue to be supportive, highlighting the importance of China playing a role in efforts to resolve the nuclear issue with North Korea,” Detrani told RFA.
Kim Jong Un’s relationship with Beijing, “the only economic lifeline that Kim basically has,” will be crucial in the short term, said Harry Kazianis, the Center for the National Interest’s director for Korean Studies.
“It’s pretty clear that the DPRK is in a deep state of crisis. So, there’s only one thing that’s going to provide immediate help for Kim, and that’s going hat in hand to China, and I’m sure that’s something Kim doesn’t want to do,” he told RFA.
U.S. engagement with North Korea is likely to return to the core denuclearization issue under President-elect Joe Biden after dramatic personal summitry under President Donald Trump, said Dennis Halpin, the former principal advisor to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Asia-Pacific issues.
“President-elect Biden, who publicly referred to Kim Jong Un as ‘a thug,’ has indicated that he is skeptical of Trump’s ‘bromance’ diplomacy and will demand concrete steps from Pyongyang before going forward in diplomatic negotiations,” he told RFA.
Despite first engaging each other in a war of words, the two leaders eventually agreed to meet to discuss denuclearization in Singapore in June 2018.
Their first summit resulted in a resolution where both sides agreed to “establish new U.S.-DPRK relations” and “work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” but nothing concrete was finalized.
Kim and Trump held a second summit in February 2019 but it was cut short with no deal reached. Trump explained that the meeting was called off when North Korea requested an end to all sanctions.
Trump then famously said at a political rally later that year that he and Kim “fell in love” after exchanging letters, a statement widely criticized by his political opponents.
On the heels of the G20 meeting in Osaka Japan in June 2019, Trump paid a visit to South Korea and met with Kim at Panmunjom, even briefly stepping across the border into North Korea. The meeting was criticized by pundits as little more than a photo opportunity, even though both sides agreed to resume working level talks.
Trump’s overtures towards North Korea have been characterized as an upending of three decades of U.S. strategy that did nothing but give Pyongyang positive PR and accomplished very little in terms of denuclearization.
But engagement with the U.S. is not completely off the table, Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA think tank told RFA.
“All of [Kim’s] actions up until this point have really pointed in this direction that he’s trying to keep his options open for possible engagement with the United States. And if that goes well then of course engagement with South Korea,” Gause said.
Gause said the new administration in Washington will give North Korea several options on strategy.
“Either he can go the old traditional route of brinksmanship, which will pretty much put an end to any potential relationship with the United States for the foreseeable future, because this is a very traditional foreign policy team that Biden is bringing in, or he can try to keep his options open as long as he can and see if the United States provides any sort of incentive for him to re-engage,” he said.
North Korea will likely follow its predictable pattern of “small carrots and big sticks,” Soo Kim of the RAND Corporation told RFA.
“North Korea’s interactions with the outside world throughout history have made it quite clear that its definition of diplomacy does not align with ours,” Soo Kim said.
“Kim likely views the new year and a new U.S. administration as an opportunity to reinforce his strategic line – and perhaps test the resolve of the new U.S. presidency. So, I would say that the call for diplomacy at the party congress is the first of many baits from Pyongyang to test the waters with Washington and Seoul,” she said.
Robert Winstanley-Chesters of the University of Leeds in Britain told RFA that above all else, North Korea desires regime survival.
“What North Korea ultimately wants is to be taken seriously as a legitimate, viable state with a place at the world table, and to have its security and continued existence and sovereignty guaranteed,” he said.
“Pyongyang ultimately sees the United States as the guarantor of that security and so would like to achieve that on equal terms, and not to involve South Korea in whatever deal that might involve,” Winstanley-Chesters said.
The House Armed Services Committee Chairman’s Office told RFA that Kim Jong Un’s hostile words toward the U.S. follow “a generally consistent pattern of North Korea increasing pressure at the beginning of a new administration to attempt to drive the U.S. to negotiations.”
Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center that a provocation could happen in the near future, but there could also be a delay due to the coronavirus.
“The provocations are meant to force the US back to the table or to gain concessions in negotiations. But if North Korean diplomats are unable to meet with U.S. counterparts due to COVID restrictions, then the catalytic provocations may be postponed until the situation allows for talks,” Klingner said.
A U.S. Senator said that the transition presents an opportunity to Biden to make tangible progress that eluded the current administration.
“President-[elect] Biden can work fast to lower the temperature by engaging with the Kim regime on smart-diplomacy that charts a course towards peace,” Ed Markey (D-Mass.), told RFA.
“An interim agreement could provide sanctions relief in exchange for a commitment by North Korea to provide a full-accounting of its nuclear program and verifiably freeze its production of additional material for bombs and ballistic missiles.” Markey said.
The Biden transition team declined to comment.
Kim Jong Un also touted at the congress several weapons systems that Pyongyang is developing, including several types of missiles and even spy satellites. He also said it was important for North Korea to be able to hit targets within 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles), likely a reference to the mainland U.S.
“Nothing would be more foolish and dangerous than not strengthening our might tirelessly and having an easy-going attitude at a time when we clearly see the enemy’s state-of-the-art weapons are being increased more than ever,” Kim said at the congress.
“The reality is that we can achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula when we constantly build up our national defense and suppress U.S. military threats,” he said.
The goal of the North Korean weaponry would not be to attack the U.S., but rather as a means to goad Washington into agreeing to negotiations.
“This is an ambitious program for a small country, which is suffering from economic mismanagement and severe UN sanctions. Some of these projects have been under development in recent years, but it will take more than a decade to mature most advanced ones,” Olli Heinonen, former deputy director general for the International Atomic Energy Agency, told RFA.
“A fait accompli with small number of nuclear devices and established technologies would provide for North Korea leverage for stepwise denuclearization,” he said.
Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, who had been considered by some observers to be second-in-command to her brother, was seemingly suddenly demoted out of the Workers’ Party’s politburo after enjoying years of increasing influence.
The party voted in candidates the Central Committee Sunday, and Kim Yo Jong, the First Deputy Director of the United Front Department, which is responsible for relations with the South, was absent on lists of the politburo released by state media.
Lee Inbae, director for the South Korea-based Institute for Cooperative Security noted that Kim Yo Jong’s demotion came after a year in which North Korea erupted in anger, cutting off all communication with the South and destroying a Seoul-funded joint Korean liaison office inside North Korea.
Pyongyang’s outburst, spearheaded by Kim Yo Jong, came in response to South Korean civic groups launching propaganda leaflets by balloon into North Korean territory.
Experts said the strategy was to pressure South Korea into making concessions in return for a resumption of dialogue.
Reported by Seung Wook Hong, Albert Hong, Erin Ji, Hee Jung Yang and Jeongeun Ji for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.