Kim admits policy failures opening North Korean party congress

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un admitted that his economic development plans have failed as he opened the nation’s first full ruling party congress in five years, state media reported on Wednesday.

In an opening speech at the congress that began Tuesday, Kim said that the developmental goals set at a 2016 congress “were not met in almost all areas to a great extent,” according to the North’s official Korean Central News Agency, AP reported. Kim described the present difficulties facing his government as “the worst of all” and “unprecedented”.

The Workers’ Party Congress, one of the North’s biggest propaganda spectacles, is meant to help Kim show a worried nation that he’s firmly in control and to boost unity behind his leadership in the face of COVID-19 and other growing economic challenges.

Kim, 36, is holding the congress, which is expected to last a few days, amid what may be the toughest challenge of his nine-year rule and what he has called “multiple crises.” Few experts doubt Kim’s grip on power. But a prolonged coronavirus-related lockdown may be further destabilizing food and foreign exchange markets and aggravating livelihoods in North Korea. That could possibly lessen Kim’s authority, some observers say.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said that “the fundamental problem” is that “Kim wants regime-sustaining economic growth while retaining nuclear weapons.” “Pyongyang is thus likely to demand sanctions relief for merely reducing tensions rather than making progress on denuclearization,” he told AP.

US-led sanctions toughened after Kim’s unusually aggressive run of nuclear and missile tests in 2016 and 2017. They maintain a ban on major export items such as coal, textiles and seafood. Nevertheless, Kim has still repeatedly pushed for an expansion of his nuclear arsenal to cope with what he calls US hostility.

Kim entered talks with President Donald Trump in 2018, but their diplomacy has been deadlocked for about two years because of wrangling over the sanctions.

The pandemic and typhoons and flooding last summer, which destroyed houses, farming land and other infrastructure across North Korea, have further hurt the North’s economy.

After a yearlong closure of its border with China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, bilateral trade volume plummeted by about 80% in the first 11 months of last year from the corresponding period in 2019, said analyst Song Jaeguk at Seoul’s IBK Economic Research Institute.

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.

Kim didn’t mention the United States or South Korea in his speech on Tuesday. He’s expected to make a few more speeches before the congress ends.

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