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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea's Kim makes no mention of US in anniversary speech

Leader of isolated nation focuses on domestic issues, economic crises

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un chairs a session of the 4th plenary meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, in this photo released on Dec. 29, 2021 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.   © Reuters

SEOUL (Reuters) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un capped off his 10th year in power with a speech that made more mention of tractor factories and school uniforms than nuclear weapons or the U.S., according to summaries by state media on Saturday.

North Korea's main goals for 2022 will be jump starting economic development and improving people's lives as it faces a "great life-and-death struggle," Kim said in a speech on Friday at the end of the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 8th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), which began on Monday.

The meetings coincided with the 10-year anniversary of Kim effectively assuming leadership of the country after the death of his father in 2011.

Kim has used previous speeches around the New Year to make major policy announcements, including launching significant diplomatic engagements with South Korea and the U.S.

But summaries of his speech published in North Korean state media made no specific mention of the U.S., with only a passing reference to unspecified discussions of inter-Korean relations and "external affairs."

The domestic focus of the speech underscored the economic crises Kim faces at home, where self-imposed anti-pandemic border lockdowns have left North Korea more isolated than ever before.

"The basic tasks facing the part and the people the next year are to provide a firm guarantee for implementing the five-year plan and make remarkable changes in the national development and the people's living," Kim was quoted as saying.

Kim spent the majority of his speech detailing domestic issues from an ambitious plan for rural development to people's diets, school uniforms and the need to crack down on "non-socialist practices."

He cited unspecified military advancements as a major achievement of the past year and discussed "militant tasks" facing national defense in 2022. The tractor factory he discussed in the speech is also likely to be used to build launch vehicles for missiles, foreign analysts have said, and North Korea is believed to have expanded its arsenal despite the lockdowns.

The big focus on rural development is likely a populist strategy, said Chad O'Carroll, founder of NK News, a Seoul-based website that tracks North Korea.

"Overall, Kim might be aware that revealing sophisticated military development plans while people are suffering food shortages and harsh conditions outside of Pyongyang might not be such a good idea this year," he wrote on Twitter.

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