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Kim Jong Un vows to expand foreign relations ahead of Biden era

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a meeting of the ruling Workers' Party Politburo in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this Nov. 15, 2020, file photo provided by the North Korean government.

KOREAN CENTRAL NEWS AGENCY/KOREA NEWS SERVICE

By JEONG-HO LEE | Bloomberg | Published: January 8, 2021

SEOUL (Tribune News Service) — Kim Jong Un pledged to improve North Korea’s external relations, in some of his first remarks on foreign affairs since Joe Biden won the U.S. presidential election.

Kim outlined plans for “comprehensively expanding and developing the external relations” during meetings of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, the official Korean Central News Agency said Friday. The brief remark, which cited discussion of the “issue of affairs with” South Korea, came as part of a rare ruling party congress to approve a development plan for the next five years.

The KCNA report said the congress was to continue Friday, which is Kim’s 37th birthday, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry.

The comment on foreign affairs was the closest state media reports from the congress have so far come to commenting on Kim’s approach to either the U.S. president-elect or Seoul. “External relations” could refer to ties with both the U.S. or South Korea, as well as other foreign powers such China and Russia.

The meeting — the first of its kind in five years — is being watched for signs of how Kim will adjust to the departure of President Donald Trump, who has engaged in unprecedented direct nuclear talks with the North Korean leader. Kim is one of the few world leaders yet to acknowledge the U.S. election results, and hasn’t made substantive comments on his weapons program since unveiling a new intercontinental ballistic missile at an October military parade.

North Korea is likely seeking to calibrate its approach to preserve his chances of securing a deal to relieve the international sanctions on the regime that have pushed his economy toward its worst recession in more than two decades. Biden has called Kim a “thug” and said he would only meet the North Korean leader, if he made moves to reduce his nuclear arsenal.

In a speech Tuesday to open the congress, Kim touted his foreign policy achievements over the past five years, noting that the “external prestige of the country was raised remarkably.” He also vowed to boost North Korea’s defense capabilities to a “higher level.”

Trump’s willingness to hold direct talks prompted an unprecedented flurry of diplomacy by the once reclusive Kim, who also met with more than a dozen world leaders including South Korean President Moon Jae-in and China’s Xi Jinping. Such meetings have slowed since Trump walked out of a February 2019 summit with Kim and the North Korean leader resumed ballistic missile launches.

In June, North Korea blew up a $15 million joint liaison office that South Korea built north of the border two years ago as a symbol of Moon’s policy of reconciliation. Kim, however, has refrained from testing nuclear bombs or ICBMs since first meeting Trump, despite declaring his pledge to halt such actions over.

Moon has urged the Trump administration to make gestures to reengage North Korea, to little avail, vowing in remarks Thursday to continue working to improve relations with Pyongyang “until the end.” Biden’s camp has signaled more room for negotiations, and his choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has backed a negotiated settlement with North Korea that first freezes and then rolls back its nuclear program in return for rewards.

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