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North Korea Vows To Develop New Weapons To Counter U.S. Threat

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

Just in case President-elect Joe Biden didn't have enough on his agenda, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to develop a raft of new weapons to counter what he called his country's main enemy, the U.S. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, Kim's hard line comes as he faces an unprecedented economic crisis.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: North Korea's diplomatic policies, Kim said Saturday, should focus on overcoming the U.S., which he called the primary enemy. A state TV news anchor quoted from Kim's speech at a ruling party congress in Pyongyang.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "The report stressed that whoever takes power in the U.S.," he said, "the nature of the country and the real intentions of its policy towards North Korea will never change." Kim also said that his country would develop new weapons, including miniaturized nuclear warheads, tactical nukes, nuclear submarines and hypersonic missiles. Coming days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office, Kim's speech...

JOHN DELURY: Is not exactly an olive branch, but it's not slamming the door by any stretch of the imagination either, you know. So it's something in between.

KUHN: John Delury is a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul.

DELURY: And it's also a statement of where they can go next, you know, which is quite sobering. That is also the starting point for diplomacy and negotiation.

KUHN: In other words, Kim's speech can be seen as an opening move in a new chess game. On economic matters, Kim struck a humbler note at the congress, admitting last week that his policies to grow the economy and raise people's living standards were an abject failure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "The period for implementing the five-year strategy for national economic development ended last year," he said. "But almost all sectors fell a long way short of the set objectives." The congress is supposed to come up with a new economic blueprint for the next five years. The North's economy is reeling under the effects of international sanctions, natural disasters and the coronavirus, even though they claim not to have a single case. Some experts say North Korea is facing the worst economic crisis since the mid-1990s, when up to a million or more North Koreans died of famine. One reason there are no reports of starvation this time is that under Kim Jong Un, North Korea relies more on private markets to buy and sell goods and depends less on imports. Choi Eun-ju, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, a think tank outside Seoul, explains.

CHOI EUN-JU: (Through interpreter) Most consumer goods are now produced within the country, whereas in the past, they depended a lot on Chinese-made goods. Now, the domestically produced goods are available on the markets and North Korean consumers actually prefer them.

KUHN: Choi says North Korea can't produce enough goods, though, to offset the losses from the pandemic. And she doubts that Kim will launch any bold economic reforms. She expects Kim to just tinker with the existing system.

CHOI: (Through interpreter) So I think what they can choose now is to continue with the current direction, which is to maximize internal capabilities.

KUHN: Some experts believe North Korea's dire economic situation may curb Kim Jong Un's appetite for confrontation with the incoming Biden administration. Cho Han-bum is a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul.

CHO HAN-BUM: (Through interpreter) During difficult times in the past, North Korea has staged provocations in order to increase their leverage in negotiations, but it's a risky move now when their domestic situation is so vulnerable.

KUHN: Pyongyang has not tested any missiles capable of hitting the U.S. since 2017, and that launch triggered tougher U.N. sanctions, from which the North is still suffering.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.