A rare meeting of North Korea’s ruling party has ended with a symbolically important new title for the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, speculation about the future of his influential sister, and a shot across the bow of the incoming US president.
Less than two weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration, much of what Kim told the first congress of the ruling Workers’ party for five years had a familiar ring to it.
Citing the justification the North has used to press ahead with its nuclear weapons programme, Kim labelled the US his country’s “biggest enemy”. Progress on denuclearisation, he said, would be wholly dependent on an end to American aggression.
“Our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on subduing the US, our biggest enemy and main obstacle to our innovated development,” Kim said, according to the official KCNA news agency.
“No matter who is in power in the US, the true nature of the US and its fundamental policies towards North Korea never change,” he added. “The key to establishing new relations between [North Korea] and the United States is whether the United States withdraws its hostile policy.”
His challenge to Washington included the prospect of a nuclear-powered submarine, now reportedly in the testing stage, and plans to build on existing nuclear technology with smaller nuclear warheads “to be applied differently depending on target subjects”.
Almost a decade since he succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, as the third member of the Kim dynasty to rule North Korea, Kim opened the congress to with a rare admission of failure. A year of “unprecedented” crises – pandemic-enforced border closures with its biggest trading partner China, natural disasters and international sanctions – had led to the “near-total” failure of his plans for the country’s already fragile economy, he said.
But at the weekend, days after his 37th birthday, Kim was anointed general secretary of the Workers’ party, a post formerly held by his father and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung – a highly symbolic move analysts said was intended to strengthen his grip on power.
“Kim’s takeover shows his confidence, that he has now officially joined the ranks of his father and grandfather,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. “It also indicates his strategic intention to centralise the party system around him and reinforce his one-man rule.”
It was fitting that a meeting whose timing and agenda were largely a mystery left the world struggling to interpret the removal of his sister, Kim Yo-jong, from the powerful party politburo, although she retained her membership at the central committee.
What some observers saw as a demotion, others construed as a sign that Yo-jong, a constant presence during her brother’s nuclear summitry with Donald Trump, would continue to exert influence on policy, particularly towards South Korea.
“It is too early to draw any conclusion about her status, as she is still a central committee member and there’s a possibility that she has taken up other important posts,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
What form that engagement takes will depend largely on Biden and his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, who has little to show for ending his conservative predecessors’ hardline approach towards Pyongyang, and used his New Year’s address to talk of a “last-ditch” effort to repair cross-border ties and restart US-North Korea nuclear talks.
Biden’s time as vice president does not augur well. Barack Obama was accused of failing to give North Korea’s nuclear and missile development the attention it deserved. Biden has called Kim a “thug”, while North Korea denounced the president-elect as a “rabid dog” that needed to be “beaten to death with a stick”.
But as the summits Kim and Trump held after trading insults prove, a bout of name calling needn’t be an obstacle to progress.
Kurt Campbell, the top US diplomat for east Asia under Obama, described Trump’s three meetings with Kim as “extraordinary bold”, even though no substantive progress has been made in divesting Kim of a nuclear arsenal that is thought to include missiles capable of striking the US mainland.
“One of the key challenges of Biden administration is the need to make an early decision about what to do with respect to North Korea,” Campbell said last month, adding that the period of delay during the Obama administration enabled North Korea to take “provocative” steps “that basically headed off any possibility of engagement”.
As the world’s eyes again turn to the US Capitol, Kim has stopped short of the goading that marked his early encounters with Trump. But his tone at the congress was also a warning to Biden not to repeat the policy mistakes made the last time he had access to the White House.
“Kim’s message … was taken to mean that he would not attempt to reach out to the South and the US first, though he would remain open to dialogue with them,” the Korea Times said in an editorial on Tuesday, noting that joint US-South Korea military drills – a provocation in the eyes of the North – were only three months away.
“With this, Kim has moved the ball into the court of Seoul and Washington.”