Kim Jong Un admits economic failures in speech at party congress

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SEOUL, Jan. 6 (UPI) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un kicked off a rare congress of the ruling Worker’s Party with a speech that admitted failure to reach the country’s five-year economic goals, state media reported Wednesday.

“The five-year strategy for national economic development ended last year, but it fell incredibly short of the goals set out in almost all sectors,” Kim said, according to state-run Korean Central News Agency.

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“The worst of the worst unprecedented difficulties that we are going through have been a major obstacle to the progress of our revolution,” Kim said in his opening address to the Eighth Party Congress, which began on Tuesday.

The meeting is expected to last for a few days with new economic development plans and changes to party leadership on the agenda. Observers will be keeping an eye on whether Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, will be given a higher position in the party after a year that saw her profile rise significantly on the international stage.

Kim said in his speech that “various challenges that hinder our efforts” have come from “both outside and inside.”

North Korea experienced severe economic hardships in 2020 from ongoing international sanctions and prolonged border closings due to COVID-19. Pyongyang took early action against the pandemic and sealed its borders in January, disrupting economic activity with its main trading partner, China.

The country was also battered by a series of late-summer typhoons that caused flooding and major damage to buildings, roads and crops.

“It is necessary to boldly acknowledge defects that became obstacles and stumbling stones and take decisive measures so that such a breakdown will not be repeated again,” Kim said.

The North Korean leader said the congress will work to “pave a new path” and make a “leap forward.”

North Korea has also won “huge victories” in recent years, Kim added.

He praised the work of the party in “guaranteeing a stable state against the coronavirus throughout the year and recovering from natural disasters.”

The country has not confirmed any cases of COVID-19 to the World Health Organization, although outside experts question that claim.

Kim also praised North Korea’s development of weapons and military capabilities, saying it has “established strong security to defend the fate of the country and the people.”

Kim did not mention the United States or South Korea in his speech, but observers will be watching closely for signs of North Korea’s foreign policy stance ahead of the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 20.

Nuclear negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington have been stalled since a summit held in Hanoi, Vietnam, between President Donald Trump and Kim nearly two years ago failed to produce an agreement.

In October, Kim oversaw a parade that featured new military hardware including a massive ICBM, and questions remain whether the nuclear-armed state will conduct a missile test or other provocations ahead of Biden’s inauguration.

Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said at an online symposium earlier this week that the military is not seeing “any indicators that suggest there would be a major provocation.”

“But that’s today,” he added. “That could change next week.”

Some 5,000 party leaders and delegates and 2,000 observers attended the opening of the party congress, KCNA reported. Images released by state media showed attendees not wearing masks or observing social distancing.