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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un refocuses on nuclear buildup as party meeting closes

North Korea takes hard line against US leading into Biden transition

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un receives applause during the eighth congress of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang.   © KCNA via Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un concluded the regime's seldom-held party congress by declaring a return to nuclear buildup in a display of renewed defiance against the U.S. and its allies.

During his closing address Tuesday, Kim told delegates that he humbly and solemnly accepts his appointment to the newly restored position of general secretary of the ruling Workers' Party.

"Fully aware of the sacred mission that I am representing ... I solemnly pledge that I will make every effort to implement the struggles put forth by the party congress," said Kim.

The congress is only the eighth held in the Workers' Party's history and the second longest at eight days, bested only by the gathering in 1970.

During the congress, Kim mentioned nuclear buildup multiple times. The development of short-range strategic nuclear weapons would bring U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea within striking range.

There is strong probability that the regime will run tests to miniaturize nuclear warheads that can be loaded in different types of short-range missiles. North Korea has demanded that the South cancel the joint military exercise with the U.S. scheduled for March, making the situation ripe for mounting provocation.

Pyongyang has taken a hardline stance toward U.S. diplomacy, with the ultimate goal of having the economic sanctions lifted and being recognized as a nuclear state.

When Joe Biden is inaugurated as U.S. president next Wednesday, there will be a window of time before his administration finalizes its North Korea policy. It appears the hermit state aims to maximize its military strength in a way that menaces the U.S. and its allies during that span.

At the same time, Kim will maintain friendly relations with China, the source of 90% of North Korean trade. On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping extended a congratulatory message to Kim for his new title of general secretary. Kim reciprocated Tuesday by expressing "deep gratitude" that Xi was the first among national leaders to congratulate him.

Kim's regime wasted little time in staking a recalcitrant attitude with South Korea. On Monday, the South Korean military said it detected signs that North Korea held a military parade Sunday evening.

Kim Yo Jong, younger sister of the North Korean leader, responded by calling the South's military leaders "top fools" for singling out the North for close observation in the first place, according to a statement dated Tuesday.

Although it appears that Kim Yo Jong remains in charge of operations concerning South Korea, she has been stripped of her role as an alternate member of the politburo. Her official title has also been downgraded to deputy department director of the party's central committee, down from first deputy department director.

With North Korea's economy struggling, initiatives will be predicated on borders remaining closed for the time being. Not only have United Nations sanctions imposed strict border controls with China, but Pyongyang has shut down cross-border traffic to prevent the importation of the novel coronavirus.

During Tuesday's speech, Kim laid out a new five-year plan to bolster the nation's finances, urging delegates to "restore and strengthen the system and order" in which the economy "runs under the unified guidance and management of the state."

Forming the basis of the North's five-year plan is self-rehabilitation and self-sufficiency. To that end, Kim plans to repurpose mineral resources the country is banned from exporting as internal sources of energy and material.

North Korea will next open its parliamentary session on Sunday, when policymakers will discuss laws and the budget.

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