Kim vows to bolster North Korea's military at party meeting

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A traffic officer stand in attention along a main street of the Central District in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. The Workers Party Congress is one of the Norths biggest propaganda spectacles and is meant to help leader Kim Jong Un show his people that hes firmly in control and boost unity in the face of COVID-19 and other growing economic challenges. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

SEOUL – North Korea leader Kim Jong Un vowed to strengthen the country's military defenses in a speech at a major ruling party meeting that provides insights into his priorities amid growing economic challenges and a U.S. presidential transition.

Kim made clear his “will to reliably protect the security of the country and people and the peaceful environment of the socialist construction by placing the state defense capabilities on a much higher level, and put forth goals for realizing it,” the Korean Central News Agency said.

The state media report Thursday on Kim's speech to the Workers’ Party congress the previous day didn't elaborate. North Korea has previously underscored its need for nuclear weapons and missiles as a deterrent and a pre-emptive strike capability to cope with what it describes as American hostility.

Cheong Seong-Chang, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, said Kim’s speech likely contained “sensitive contents” that can provoke the United States and South Korea.

Kim halted his country's nuclear and long-range missile tests before engaging in high-stakes summitry with President Donald Trump in 2018. But with his advancing arsenal on the negotiating table, their diplomacy fell apart due to wrangling over the weapons and U.S.-led sanctions on North Korea.

Kim since then has openly pledged to expand his nuclear capability that he says already put the American mainland within its striking range. However, he has not resumed high-profile weapons tests, which some analysts say could completely derail diplomacy with the United States and further diminish prospects for winning sanctions relief.

South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers in late November that Kim was worried about President-elect Joe Biden’s expected new approach on North Korea. Biden has called Kim a “thug” and criticized his summit diplomacy with Trump.

This year’s congress — the first in five years — comes as Kim faces what appears to be the toughest moment since taking power in late 2011, due to what he calls “multiple crises” caused by an economy battered by pandemic-related border closings, a series of natural disasters and the sanctions.

On the first day of the congress Tuesday, Kim admitted his previous economic development plans failed, saying that “almost all sectors fell a long way short of the set objectives.” He said the congress would work out a new five-year development plan.

Kim on Wednesday presented goals for developing the North’s transport, construction, commerce and other industries and proposed ways to expand production in agriculture, light industry and fishing to improve public livelihoods, KCNA said.

State media didn’t provide much details on Kim’s economic review. Cheong said North Korea likely didn’t want foreign experts to learn its poor economic performance too easily.