Kim Jong-un has stated he wants to drastically improve his nation’s ties with the outside world as he spoke at a rare political conference on its third day.
State media said the North Korean leader has also reviewed relations with rival South Korea, but details as to the next steps are yet to be confirmed.
Mr Kim is expected to use the first public meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party in five years to send peacebuilding gestures toward Seoul and Washington as his country plunged into a more precarious economic state.
In his speech Mr Kim “declared the general orientation and the policy stand of our party for comprehensively expanding and developing the external relations,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported on Friday.
Mr Kim also examined relations with South Korea “as required by the prevailing situation and the changing times,” KCNA said.
The congress, the party’s top decision-making body, was convened as Mr Kim acknowledges the difficulties posed by “multiple crises” caused by the economic effects of pandemic-related border closings, a series of natural disasters and US-led economic sanctions.
In his opening-day speech, Mr Kim admitted his previous economic plans had failed and vowed to adopt a new five-year development plan. On the second day of the meeting, he said he would bolster his country’s military capability.
Mr Kim, who inherited power following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011, turned 37 on Friday. His birthday has not yet been designated a national holiday like his father’s and grandfather’s.
After a provocative run of ballistic missile tests in 2016-17, seen as an attempt to acquire the ability to strike the US mainland with nuclear weapons, Mr Kim abruptly launched high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with President Donald Trump.
The Kim-Trump diplomacy broke down during a summit in Vietnam in early 2019 after Mr Trump rejected Mr Kim’s offer to dismantle his main nuclear complex, a limited disarmament step, in return for broad sanctions relief.
However, after the diplomacy with Mr Trump began to stall and the coronavirus forced him to close his country’s borders, Mr Kim has been focusing domestically to mitigate the economic shocks from the pandemic.
During Thursday’s session, Mr Kim also called for “thoroughly eliminating non-socialist elements” in North Korean society and proposed ways to promote the “might of the social system of our state”, KCNA said. Mr Kim criticised working people’s organisations, including the youth league, for allegedly failing to fulfil their duties and said the league must prioritise “ideological education” above other tasks.
Mr Kim’s government has been cracking down on what it calls “alien, unsound non-socialist practices”. Last month, state media said North Korea’s parliament legislated “a law on rejecting reactionary ideology and culture”. Analysts say North Korea is guarding against a possible spread of capitalism and looser internal unity amid the economic difficulties.
South Korea’s spy agency said Mr Kim is concerned about president-elect Joe Biden, who is to take office on 20 January. Mr Biden has called Mr Kim a “thug” and is unlikely to hold any direct meetings with him unless North Korea takes serious steps toward denuclearisation.
Some observers say North Korea is frustrated because the south has failed to break away from Washington and revive stalled joint economic projects held back by the US-led sanctions. They also speculate that North Korea initially thought South Korea would help it win sanctions relief but got upset after Mr Kim returned home empty-handed from the 2019 summit with Mr Trump.
The observers say North Korea may reach out to South Korea first to promote a mood of reconciliation before pushing for talks with the Biden administration. The nuclear diplomacy between Mr Kim and Mr Trump began after South Korean officials met Mr Kim in early 2018 and conveyed to Washington his reported willingness to possibly halt his nuclear program in exchange for economic and political benefits.