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Kim Jong Un skips traditional New Year speech, keeps Biden guessing on North Korea policy

The holiday events were closely watched for clues to how Kim planned to bolster North Korea's shrinking economy and approach the incoming Biden administration.

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Tokyo/Seoul: Kim Jong Un built anticipation for a rare party congress he plans to hold in the coming days, after skipping the New Year’s Day address North Korean leaders have long used to lay out their policy agendas.

Instead of the usual televised address, Kim opted to send his people “heartfelt greetings” in a brief, handwritten letter. It was the first such New Year’s missive since 1995, when Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, took power from state founder Kim Il Sung, the Seoul-based Yonhap News Agency reported.

“I will work hard to sooner bring the new era in which the ideals and desires of our people will come true,” Kim, 36, said in the 100-word message.

The holiday events were closely watched for clues to how Kim planned to bolster his shrinking economy and approach the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. The North Korean leader was probably saving his rhetorical ammunition for the upcoming Workers’ Party Congress — the first such event in five years and one of the most substantial political gatherings Kim has held.

Delegates have already begun gathering in Pyongyang, the official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday, indicating the meeting could start in days. The secretive state hasn’t yet announced a schedule, other than to say it would start in “early January.”

“The congress will show North Korea’s overall economic, military and political blueprints for the next five years,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, who has advised the South Korean government. Yang said the event was far more important than the New Year’s speech.

The meeting, where Kim is also expected to name leadership changes, comes as his sanctions-squeezed economy was dealt further blows by natural disasters and Kim’s decision to shut his borders due to the coronavirus. North Korea’s gross domestic product likely shrank by 8.5% in 2020, according to a projection by Fitch Solutions, leaving it smaller than when Kim took power in 2011 with a pledge to improve people’s living standards.

North Korea welcomed 2021 with a flag-raising ceremony in central Pyongyang that included singing, dancing and a fireworks display broadcast on state television. Kim visited the Kumsusan Palace of Sun mausoleum containing the bodies of his father and grandfather, KCNA said Friday.

Kim is one of the few world leaders yet to congratulate — or even acknowledge — Biden’s defeat of President Donald Trump, who dispensed with decades of American foreign policy to hold three meetings with the North Korean leader.

Kim’s most recent public speech — at a military parade in October — featured a rare show of emotion, with the leader appearing to cry as he talked about the country’s economic struggles under international sanctions. He also rolled out several new weapons designed to strike U.S. and allied forces, including what is believed to be the world’s largest road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

Another military parade may be planned around the time of the congress, with satellite imagery showing army vehicles amassing near a Pyongyang staging ground used ahead of previous parades, the NK News website reported Thursday.

Kim also skipped the televised address last year, instead releasing a more than 4,000-word report in which he, among other things, said he wasn’t bound by a self-imposed testing moratorium on nuclear and long-range missiles. Kim called for “shocking actual action” to make the U.S. “pay for the pains” suffered under the Washington-led sanctions.

Biden’s camp has signaled more room for negotiations, and the president-elect’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has backed a negotiated settlement with North Korea that first freezes and then rolls back its nuclear program in return for rewards.

“The party congress is Kim Jong Un’s one shot at articulating the country’s strategy for the new year and sending some signals to the outside world,” said Soo Kim, a Rand Corp. policy analyst who previously worked at the Central Intelligence Agency. “I’d think the Party Congress would give us further glimpse into North Korea’s weaknesses and the regime’s efforts to compensate or deny that these weaknesses exist.” –Bloomberg

Also read: North Korea’s Kim Jong Un marks New Year with letter, thanks people


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