Kim Jong Un urges ‘big leap foward’ at rare North Korea congress

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his five-year economic plan had failed to meet its goals "on almost every sector" as he kicked off a congress of the ruling Workers' Party, state media KCNA reported on January 6.

SEOUL (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un kicked off the country’s first ruling party congress in five years, saying that its economic development plan fell far short of goal and that the party would explore a “new path” for making a “big leap forward.”

The start of the days-long Workers’ Party Congress came shortly after Kim skipped his usual New Year’s Day address to lay out his policy agenda. In remarks to open the congress Tuesday (Jan 5), Kim said that the country’s five-year economic development plan, which ended last year, missed its targets by a “great degree” as both “internal and external challenges are undermining its progress,” according to the Korean Central News Agency.

Kim also said the party would explore a “new path” for making a “big leap forward” but KCNA did not disclose if Kim had specified what the path would be other than that the party congress would lay the groundwork for building a stronger nation and improving living standards.

The gathering of 5,000 delegates and party officials is being closely watched for clues to how Kim plans to bolster his shrinking economy and approach the incoming administration of US President-elect Joe Biden. There was no mention of the President-elect in the initial accounts of the event published by KCNA.

"With Trump gone, North Korea will reaffirm its traditional hostile stance against the US with a hint on the type of its next provocation," said Go Myong-hyun of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies.

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.

His sister and key adviser Kim Yo Jong was among the officials elected to the presidium of the congress, in a sign of her increasing standing.

North Korea’s gross domestic product likely shrank by 8.5 per cent 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.

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 US 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.

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.

Earlier, he had admitted there had been mistakes in developing the country's economy.

The last congress in 2016 - the first in almost 40 years - cemented Kim Jong Un's status as supreme leader and the inheritor of his family's dynastic rule, which spans seven decades.

The current gathering reflected the "urgent need for internal solidarity", said defector-turned-researcher Ahn Chan-il of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul.

"The party congress has to serve as a spark to restore faith for the frustrated public."

The run-up to the congress saw the entire country mobilised in an 80-day drive to boost the economy, featuring extra-long work hours and additional duties for workers.

Satellite imagery showed that "preparations for a parade appear to have stepped up a pace", according to the respected 38North website, just months after Pyongyang showed off by far its biggest missile yet.

A parade also accompanied the 2016 party congress, a meeting which lasted four days.

Kim's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il never held a party congress during his rule but the current leader appears to be following a regular five-year timetable.

"Kim Jong Un is seeking regime stability and normalisation of the party," said Shin Beom-chul of the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.

"Holding the congress in 2016 and then in 2021, that's normalisation."