N Korea’s Kim reviews agenda for congress in early January

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has reviewed the agenda for an important ruling party congress set for early next month, state media reported Tuesday, dispelling outside speculation the North might delay the meeting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Workers’ Party Congress is the first in five years. It is North Korea’s biggest political conference and is mainly intended to set new political and economic priorities, reshuffle top officials and review past projects.

Kim, 36, is facing his toughest challenge since taking power in late 2011. He has called for stronger internal unity to overcome what he called “multiple crises” caused by the pandemic, a series of natural disasters last summer and persistent U.S.-led sanctions.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Wednesday that Kim and other top officials held a Politburo meeting on Tuesday to study and discuss important issues to be referred to the party congress and decided it would be held “in early January.”

The Politburo participants assessed that preparations were going smoothly and examined the qualification of delegates, the formation of the congress’ presidium and secretariat, and scheduling issues, the report said.

It’s not clear how long the congress will meet. The last congress, in 2016, was the first such meeting in 36 years and was held for four days. North Korea had previously said the 2021 congress would be held sometime in January, but South Korea’s spy agency and other observers later speculated the North might delay it due to COVID-19.

North Korea has repeatedly insisted it hasn’t found a single virus case on its soil — a claim widely doubted — but has taken some of the world’s most stringent steps to guard against the illness, including mass quarantines and border closings.

The closure of its border with China, its biggest trading partner and economic pipeline, has dealt a telling blow to North Korea’s already-troubled economy because more than 90% of its external trade goes through China. According to South Korea’s spy agency, North Korea’s trade volume with China in the first 10 months of this year plunged by 75 % and the North’s factory operation rate dropped to its lowest level since Kim took office.

During the congress, North Korea could also lay out a new stance on the United States and South Korea as President-elect Joe Biden is to be inaugurated later in January. Kim held three summits with President Donald Trump on the future of his advancing nuclear arsenal, but their diplomacy has made little headway for about two years due to a U.S. refusal to provide North Korea with sweeping sanctions relief in return for a partial denuclearization step.

“The party congress date has still not been made public, perhaps to give Kim some flexibility and perhaps out of security concerns. But if it occurs in early January, that would notably be before Inauguration Day in the United States. Kim may want to preempt rather than react to the Biden administration’s policies,” Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said.

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