- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 6, 2021

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made no mention of denuclearization, the United States or President Trump in a rare and frank public speech that opened the first meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party Congress in nearly five years in Pyongyang this week.

With the North still trying to calibrate its response to the shift of power in Washington, Mr. Kim’s closely watched speech Tuesday focused instead on the country’s troubled domestic economic situation, a sharp departure from his remarks in 2016.

Mr. Kim then spoke at length about nuclear weapons issues, while also signaling an eagerness for dialogue with the U.S. and South Korea.

This time around, Mr. Kim was mum on such issues, despite mounting uncertainty over the future of nuclear talks as the Trump administration comes to an end.

Mr. Kim did make headlines by acknowledging that his five-year economic development plan for North Korea has largely failed, according to reports by the regime’s official Korean Central News Agency. “Almost all sectors fell a long way short,” he said.

A central part of the Trump administration’s strategy over the past four years had been an effort to convince Mr. Kim that the U.S. and other world powers would ease sanctions on Pyongyang if only the Kim regime would fully renounce its nuclear ambitions.

But after two summits and a third meeting, Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim failed to reach a deal. The U.S. contends that North Korea was never committed to full denuclearization.

Talks have been stalled since then and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested this week that he believes the onus remains on Mr. Kim.

In an interview Monday with Bloomberg News, Mr. Pompeo said he still hoped commitments Mr. Kim made in the summits in Singapore and Hanoi could “be part of a process that would denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.”

“Unfortunately, we have not achieved that yet,” the secretary of state said. “Chairman Kim has not yet made the decision that he is actually prepared to execute that, and so the challenges continue.”

Deputy Secretary of State Stephen E. Biegun said on a final visit to Seoul last month that Pyongyang had “squandered” an opportunity for a deal, but that he would urge the Biden administration to continue pushing, though he suggested the incoming administration may be less eager for a breakthrough.

Based on his history and his campaign rhetoric, President-elect Joseph R. Biden is unlikely to pursue the kind of high-stakes direct meetings with North Korea’s leader favored by Mr. Trump.

He is instead expected to return to the Obama-era policy of “strategic patience,” isolating Pyongyang through sanctions and avoid rewarding the Kim regime with diplomatic overtures. Some fear Mr. Kim is likely to test the new administration early, perhaps with a fresh nuclear or long-range ballistic missile test.

The Associated Press noted that Mr. Kim, 36, is holding the Workers’ Party 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.”

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in Asia and the fallout from a series of natural disasters last summer and punishing U.S.-led sanctions over the nuclear program have battered to the country’s already ailing economy, which analysts say is under the simultaneous strain of the coronavirus.

The virus, which began more than a year ago in neighboring China — North Korea’s major economic ally — has resulted in major border closings, restricting the flow of commerce between them.

The secretive North Korean regime has insisted it has recorded no domestic COVID-19 cases — a claim U.S. and South Korean officials doubt. North Korean state media photos of this week’s gathering have shown thousands of participants, including Mr. Kim, in attendance without masks.

This year’s congress is the eighth since Mr. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, held the first in 1945, according to the AP. Kim Il-sung convened six party congresses but his son, Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011, never held a congress. Kim Jong-un revived the congress in 2016 as part of his efforts to increase the party’s authority and cement his grip on power.

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