Al Jazeera’s Alex Gatopoulos answers the question: How scared do we need to be about North Korea’s missiles?
Kim Jong Un has promised to expand North Korea’s military capabilities, state media reported on Thursday, even as the country faces international sanctions and pressure over its nuclear weapons programme.
Kim, who marks 10 years in power this year, promised to put “state defence capabilities on a much higher level, and put forth goals for realising it” during the Eighth Party Congress, which began on Tuesday, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
North Korea faces increasing economic crises caused by a self-imposed border lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, a series of natural disasters, and international sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme.
Unprecedented personal meetings between Kim and President Donald Trump who leaves office in two weeks time failed to lead to a breakthrough in denuclearisation talks, or a loosening of sanctions. Íncoming President Joe Biden will take office after his inauguration on January 20.
In sessions on Wednesday, Kim discussed policies to make a “tangible turn in improving the people’s living standard,” a day after he admitted that previous economic goals had fallen short, state media reported.
Since announcing a self-declared moratorium on nuclear testing and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches from 2018, Kim has called for the continued production of nuclear weapons, launched a series of smaller missiles and in an October parade unveiled what appeared to be North Korea’s largest ICBM yet.
The latest declaration basically means “the North will strengthen its nuclear capabilities,” North Korean defector-turned-researcher Ahn Chan-il of the World Institute for North Korea Studies in Seoul told the AFP news agency.
“Kim does not want to say the word ‘nuclear’ as Biden takes office later this month and he knows the incoming president’s stance on Pyongyang is uncompromising compared with his predecessor,” he added.
“Kim probably does not want to provoke him at this stage. But the North would never give up its nuclear weapons, that’s very clear.”
The party congress is the top meeting of the North’s ruling party, a grand political set-piece that reinforces the regime’s authority and is closely followed by analysts for signs of policy shifts. However, the previous congress was the first to be held since 1980.
Analysts who monitor satellite imagery of the reclusive country say there are indications Pyongyang is planning a parade “with military elements” to mark the gathering.
On its first day, Kim admitted that “almost all sectors” had fallen short of their economic targets and said the congress would comprehensively analyse “the experiences, lessons and mistakes we have made during the period under review”.
The coronavirus pandemic has added to the pressures on the North, which closed its borders last January to protect itself against the pandemic that first emerged in neighbouring China, a key ally. Trade with China has fallen to a tiny fraction of its usual level and countries with diplomatic representation in Pyongyang have also reduced or closed their offices.
Pyongyang insists that it has not had a single coronavirus case. Delegates at the congress were pictured sitting close together without wearing masks.