North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is calling for beefing up his country's nuclear and military capabilities, but appears to be leaving open the possibility for negotiation with the U.S., just days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
"We must do everything we can to increase nuclear war deterrence even further as we build the strongest military capability," Kim told delegates at the conclusion of an eight-day long congress of the ruling Workers Party in Pyongyang, state media reported on Wednesday.
In a report to the congress last week, Kim referred to the U.S. as North Korea's principal enemy, and vowed to develop a raft of new nuclear and conventional weapons to counter the threat from Washington.
But he also affirmed previous agreements with the Trump administration, which suggests that they could serve as the basis for future negotiations. In his report, Kim praised the 2018 Singapore summit with President Trump, which yielded "the joint declaration that assured the establishment of new [North Korea]-U.S. relations."
That declaration called for denuclearization and a peace regime on the Korean peninsula, and a new, presumably less hostile, relationship between Pyongyang and Washington. Negotiations later broke down after an abortive second summit in Vietnam in 2019.
Kim's remarks are "not exactly an olive branch, but it's not slamming the door, by any stretch of the imagination, either. So it's something in between," says John Delury, a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul.
Kim's list of military technologies he plans to develop is a warning to Washington, but "also the starting point for diplomacy and negotiation," Delury contends.
The congress also came up with some plans to strengthen the country's economy, with a developmental blueprint for the next five years. Kim kicked off the congress by bluntly admitting that his plans for the past five years had fallen flat.
Besides prescribing building up heavy industries, including steel and chemicals, Kim called for sourcing more materials for light industrial goods domestically that North Korea used to have to import, a policy economists call "import substitution."
"Most consumer goods are now produced within the country, whereas in the past, they depended a lot on Chinese-made goods," says Choi Eun-ju, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, a think tank outside Seoul. "Now, the domestically produced goods are available in the markets, and North Korean consumers actually prefer them," she adds.
While North Korea can't produce enough of the goods, Choi adds, they have helped the country to scrape by, while the border with China — the North's main trading partner — has been shut during the pandemic.
Kim conceded that, in addition to external factors, such as the pandemic, international sanctions and natural disasters, the party had committed "serious mistakes" that contributed to the country's dire economic situation.
This represents a break with the past, when the party attributed setbacks to factors beyond its control, says the Sejong Institute's Choi Eun-ju.
"Kim admits that there are external factors, but he also addresses the internal reasons," she says. "Instead of accusing the North Korean people or laborers, he blames bureaucrats, including himself."
NPR's Se Eun Gong in Seoul contributed to this report