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North Korea’s Kim Jong Un vows to solve economic crisis and bolster military

North Korean leader says little about engagements with Washington, stresses domestic politics

People in Seoul watch a television news program on Jan. 1 showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attending a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for solutions to economic hardships and development of military prowess in a speech at a major policy meeting this week, state media said Saturday.

Food shortages and other domestic hardships were put in the foreground as Kim laid out plans for 2022 at the plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s central committee. He also vowed to build up North Korea’s military in light of a “destabilizing” situation on the Korean Peninsula and international politics.

His remarks at the meeting, carried by the North’s official Rodong Sinmun on Saturday, appeared to replace his New Year’s Day address, a banner speech that previously served as a vehicle for major diplomatic and policy announcements.

Unlike previous years, when Kim issued sharp statements that provided clues about his diplomatic priorities, his remarks at the recent meeting focused on domestic matters — highlighting the challenges that lie ahead as U.S. and South Korean negotiators work to re-engage Kim on nuclear talks.

North Korea continues to develop new missiles and nuclear weapons, experts say. Negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have remained gridlocked since 2019 over North Korea’s demands of sanctions relief in exchange for denuclearization, as Pyongyang looks further inward with concerns about covid-19 and economic struggles.

The five-day plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s central committee came as 37-year-old Kim wraps up his first decade in power.

Under a self-imposed coronavirus lockdown, North Korea’s economy suffered its biggest contraction since Kim Jong Un’s formal ascension to power following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. The North’s gross domestic product posted a sharp drop of 4.5 percent in 2020, according to a South Korean government estimate released this week.

At the plenary meeting, Kim stressed the anti-virus campaign as the “No. 1 priority” for the nation. Given North Korea’s poor public health capacity, a major coronavirus outbreak would pose a big threat to the country; that has led Kim to maintain a stringent border lockdown at the cost of essential international trade.

The Saturday report carried multiple mentions of “severe hardships” in the country’s economy and presented plans for agricultural developments. Kim vowed to “boost agricultural production to completely resolve the country’s food problems,” according to the state media report.

“The massive focus on agricultural issues is unprecedented in the new year addresses and January political readouts of the Kim Jong Un era,” said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of the Korea Risk Group. He said nuclear talks with Washington and other diplomatic engagements will be a low priority for Kim as North Korea is “basically in survival mode for the year ahead.”

At the last plenary meeting in June, Kim ordered his country to be ready for both dialogue and confrontation with the United States under President Biden. The Biden administration has offered to hold talks with North Korea “anywhere, anytime,” to which the Kim regime gave the cold shoulder.

The party plenum report made general references to the ongoing military growth without giving details about new weapons development or space exploration. It said North Korea’s defense industry “greatly demonstrated the progress and modernity of our military muscle.”

Michelle Ye Hee Lee in Tamuning, Guam, contributed to this report.