North Korea’s Eighth Workers’ Party Congress has finally come to an end after a massive military parade that was held on Thursday night. But analysis of the new policy directions set forth over the past week are only just beginning. 

At the Party Congress — the first one since 2016 — Kim Jong Un announced a wide array of new policies to be implemented over the course of the next five years. Despite the many difficulties 2020 brought with it, the North Korean leader made it clear that he has no plans of slowing down or scaling back his nuclear weapons programs. With only days left until Joe Biden is inaugurated as president in the US, the recent developments have further increased the stakes of the next US administration’s North Korea policy. 

The following are some of the key takeaways from the Party Congress. 

“Modernization of the nuclear force” 

Perhaps the most alarming among the recent policy developments is North Korea’s intention to further expand and strengthen its nuclear force. According to a report published by KCNA detailing the policy decisions made at the Congress, the country aims to attain “the goal of modernization of the nuclear force.” 

Moreover, the report also mentioned plans to further develop “ultra-modern tactical nuclear weapons including new-type tactical rockets and intermediate-range cruise missiles whose conventional warheads are the most powerful in the world” and “to complete the development of a super-large hydrogen bomb.” 

In addition, KCNA reported the country’s goal to “possess a “nuclear-powered submarine and an underwater-launch nuclear strategic weapon which will be of great importance in raising the long-range nuclear striking capability.” North Korean media also stated that “the design of new nuclear-powered submarine was researched and was in the stage of final examination.”  

These statements make it clear that, despite U.S. and South Korean diplomatic efforts over the past few years, North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is likely to continue to grow for the time being. 

New five-year economic plan 

The year 2020 was one of North Korea’s most difficult years yet, given the economic damage caused by the global pandemic. North Korea closed its borders with China in late January 2020, which severely impacted the availability of goods in domestic markets and the much-needed inflow of foreign currency. 

One of the key policy directions set forth at the Congress was a new five-year economic plan. Kim Jong Un admitted that the previous plan had failed to achieve its desired results due to “protracted severe external and internal situations and in the face of unexpected challenges.”

He made sure to blame the economic situation on outside forces, stating “the most barbarous sanctions and blockade by the US and other hostile forces as the first objective factor.”

Kim said the next steps would be to invest and further develop the metal and chemical industries as well as the machine and mining industries. The North Korean leader also stated that “new plan reflects the demands for perfecting the self-supporting structure of the national economy, lowering the proportion of dependence on imports and stabilizing the people’s living by taking the actual possibilities into consideration,” according to KCNA reports. 

Plans to improve the tourism industry were also mentioned, with one KCNA report emphasizing the need to “spruce up tourist attractions” and mentioned plans to develop “the Mt Kumgang tourist area, the project to build the Kosong port coastal tourist area, the Pirobong mountaineering tourist area and the Haegumgang coastal park area.”

Rodong Sinmun reported on Jan. 8 that the third meeting of the Eighth Party Congress had commenced on Jan. 7. / Image: Rodong Sinmun

Concerning food insecurity, Kim reaffirmed the Party’s determination “in solving the people’s food, clothing and housing problems at any cost.” Such comments paired with Kim admitting the failure of his previously set five-year economic plan serve to highlight how dire the domestic economic situation must actually be. 

In addition, KCNA reported plans to “put efforts into seed production, scientific farming, increased output in low-yielding fields, cultivation of new land and tideland reclamation” and “pushing irrigation and mechanization of agriculture as an important strategic priority.”

Disinterest towards the South 

While Kim Jong Un made a point of expressing gratitude with his close allies, China and Russia, the tone directed towards Seoul, however, was much less warm. According to Kim Jong Un, “current inter-Korean relations have been brought back to the time before the publication of the Panmunjom Declaration and the hope for national reunification has become more distant,” KCNA reported. 

Kim also called South Korea out for what he sees as a hypocritical policy against the North. “The south Korean authorities are now giving an impression that they are concerned about the improvement of north-south relations by raising such inessential issues as cooperation in epidemic prevention and humanitarian field and individual tourism,” he said. He added that “Hostile military acts and anti-DPRK smear campaign are still going on in south Korea, aggravating the situation of the Korean peninsula and dimming the future of the inter-Korean relations.”

Regarding a way forward, the North Korean leader said it will depend on South Korea’s attitude. “If the south Korean authorities continue to label our action “provocation” with a double-dealing and biased mindset, we have no other option but to deal with them in a different way,” KCNA reported. It is unclear what a “different way” would look like, but it doesn’t sound too good.  

Rapidly deteriorating US-DPRK relations 

Pyongyang’s comments directed at Washington were not much kinder. Not only is Kim Jong Un provoking a response by the incoming Biden administration by detailing its plans for nuclear expansion, but he also made some direct comments aimed at the U.S. 

Kim shared his low expectations for the Biden administration by saying: “Whoever takes power in the US, its entity and the real intention of its policy toward the DPRK would never change.”

Kim Yo Jong at the Eighth Party Congress / Image: Yonhap

He also added that “the key to establishing new DPRK-US relationship lies in the US withdrawal of its hostile policy toward the DPRK, the report solemnly clarified the WPK’s stand that it would approach the US on the principle of power for power and goodwill for goodwill in the future, too,” as reported by KCNA.  

Military parade

North Korea didn’t stop at words to show the U.S. and the world its statements merit close attention. On Thursday night, North Korea held a massive military parade displaying an array of new weapons. Pyongyang is thus not only speaking of or threatening expanding its weapons programs but actually showing the world physical proof of its actions. 

The most significant weapon displayed at the parade was a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), which the North Korean leader had spoken about at the Congress. North Korean media dubbed the new missile “the world’s strongest weapon,” showcasing it alongside other short-range ballistic missiles, rockets, tanks, and other weapons. 

Notably, no ICBM was unveiled at the parade, unlike three months ago during the military parade celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Workers’ Party, where an ICBM believed to be the largest in the world was displayed. The lack of an ICBM at this parade may signal North Korea’s caution in not overly upsetting the U.S. and possibly putting Biden off from engaging with them altogether. 

Still, through the Congress and the parade, North Korea has further upped the stakes for Biden. Although he will be entering office facing many domestic challenges as well as the ongoing pandemic, the consequences of Biden ignoring North Korea too long may be very costly. 

Kim Jong Un has made his move. Now it’s time for Biden to make his.

Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.
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Gabriela Bernal
Gabriela Bernal is a freelance writer on Korean affairs and currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, South Korea.