WASHINGTON/SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) - North Korea appeared to stage a military parade as part of a grand party congress that laid out the scale of the challenge United States President-elect Joe Biden faces to rein in Kim Jong Un's nuclear program.
There were signs that North Korea held a parade late Sunday evening (Jan 10), the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said Monday, in what would be the second such event since October. US and Seoul Korean intelligence officials were tracking the movements in Pyongyang, the joint chiefs said, which could provide more insight into recent military advances by the regime.
The event came amid a Workers' Party Congress, in which Kim renewed his sabre-rattling toward the US and outlined plans for a broad upgrade of his nuclear forces to improve his capacity to strike across the Pacific.
In a chilling warning to the incoming Biden administration, North Korea declared the US its "biggest main enemy" and predicted that Washington's "hostile policy" toward Pyongyang would remain no matter who comes to power.
The congress - only the third such event in the past four decades - signalled a contentious approach toward the new administration after three largely fruitless meetings with President Donald Trump. North Korea has a history of testing new US presidents with provocations as a way to pressure them to return the negotiating table.
The event also ushered political changes that would likely be analysed for months, with the congress's main report running some 13,500 words in English. Kim received the new title of "general secretary" of the ruling party - a moniker previously reserved for his late father.
Meanwhile, his prominent sister, Ms Kim Yo Jong, was left off a list of alternate members of the Politburo without explanation, sparking speculation that she had suddenly fallen out of favour.
North Korea's weapons plans include making smaller and lighter nuclear weapons, proceeding with the development of large warheads and improving the ability to strike targets within 15,000 km - or all of the continental US.
Mr Kim is seeking to develop solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-powered submarines while strengthening intelligence-gathering capabilities with satellites, according to KCNA.
"It lights a fire under the Biden administration," said Mr Ankit Panda, a Stanton Senior Fellow in the in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Kim is making clear that if Biden decides not to prioritise North Korea policy, Pyongyang will resume testing and qualitatively advancing its nuclear capabilities in ways that would be seriously detrimental for Washington and Seoul."
It was unclear if and when North Korea would release footage of the military activities in Pyongyang. The regime waited almost a day before broadcasting images of its previous parade in October, an event that included the debut of what experts believe to be the world's largest road-mobile ICBM.
North Korea launched a long-range rocket and a detonating a nuclear device after President Barack Obama took power in 2009.
Mr Trump was welcomed with a series of ballistic missile tests that culminated with the November 2017 launch of an ICBM that experts said could deliver a nuclear warhead to the entire US.
While Mr Kim did leave the door open for further talks with the US, he reaffirmed his longstanding demand that Washington drop its "hostile policy," a collection of grievances that include the presence of American troops on the peninsula. He put a similar condition restoring ties with South Korea, a request that appeared intended to put strain on the alliance between Seoul and Washington.
In his own new year's speech Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed efforts to achieve a "big change" in relations between the US and North Korea. The longtime proponent of engagement with Pyongyang said there was no change in his willingness to improve ties.
North Korea's sanctions-battered economy was dealt further blows last year by natural disasters and Mr Kim's decision to shut borders due to the coronavirus. Gross domestic product likely shrank by 8.5 per cent in 2020, according to a projection by Fitch Solutions, leaving it smaller than when Mr Kim took power in 2011 with a pledge to improve people's living standards.
Mr Kim issued a dire warning in opening remarks to the congress of 5,000 delegates, saying the previous five-year plan fell far short of goals and the party would explore a "new path" for making a "big leap forward". His new title as general secretary of the party fit with a pattern of assuming mantels associated with his revered forebearers as he consolidates power.
Less clear was the significance of the personnel changes. The congress saw Mr Kim Yong Chol, who twice met Trump at the White House, return as the party's United Front director, despite rumours of his purge. Although Ms Kim Yo Jong was conspicuously left off the Politburo line-up, she was given a seat of honour just behind the leader, undercutting speculation that she had fallen from favour.
Ms Kim Yo Jong would "continue to play a pivotal role," said Mr Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul who has advised the South Korean government.
"It is not a demotion," Mr Yang said.
"Kim Yo Jong remains to be one of the most influential figures in North Korea, and someone who appears to connect her brother with the country's ordinary people."