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(News Focus) N.K. leader uses party congress to reaffirm nuke aspirations: analysts

2016/05/08 15:40

By Kim Soo-yeon

SEOUL, May 8 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is using the ruling party's key congress as a venue to reaffirm his dual pursuit of nuclear and economic development and to show his confidence as a leader for what Pyongyang calls a nuclear state, experts said Sunday.

The Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) kicked off its first party congress in more than three decades on Friday, a high-profile political event widely expected to highlight the leader's monolithic power.

On the second day of the congress, the North's leader made it clear that he will "permanently" defend the pursuit of his signature policy of developing nuclear weapons in tandem with boosting the country's moribund economy, commonly known as the "byeongjin" policy.

"The byeongjin policy is not a temporary response to changing situations, but a strategic policy line that should be permanently pursued," Kim was quoted as saying on Saturday by the Rodong Sinmun, the country's main newspaper.

The party congress is being held amid speculation that Pyongyang could conduct its fifth nuclear test at any time. North Korea conducted its nuke test in January and launched a long-range rocket the following month, prompting the U.N. to impose its strongest ever sanctions on the reclusive country.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at the seventh congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on May 7, 2016, in this photo carried by the Rodong Sinmun, the North's main newspaper. (For Use in South Korea Only & No Redistribution) (Yonhap) North Korean leader Kim Jong-un speaks at the seventh congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang on May 7, 2016, in this photo carried by the Rodong Sinmun, the North's main newspaper. (For Use in South Korea Only & No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

The party gathering is the first of its kind since October 1980 and also the first under the current leader, who assumed power in late 2011 following the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il.

The North's young leader touted the country's nuclear and rocket tests early this year as "great" successes when he delivered an opening speech at the congress, which is widely seen as the "coronation" for the Kim Jong-un era.

The North's leader vowed not to use nuclear weapons first unless the country's sovereignty is threatened by others with nukes, but experts said that his message is nothing more than an expression of its no intent for denuclearization.

"As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes," Kim said. "It will faithfully fulfill its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for global denuclearization."

   Hong Hyun-ik, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said such a conditional offer by the North is nothing different from its current stance to stick to nuclear weapons.

"It seems that Pyongyang is aiming for a rift in international sanctions by indicating some room for improvement in its relations with China and the U.S.," Hong said. "The North also reiterated its previous stance towards inter-Korean relations by demanding Seoul take action first in order for changes in cross-border ties. Pyongyang will likely shift to a more high-handed attitude towards Seoul."

  

Photos of North Korea's Workers' Party congress carried by the Rodong Sinmun on its front page on May 8, 2016. (Yonhap) Photos of North Korea's Workers' Party congress carried by the Rodong Sinmun on its front page on May 8, 2016. (Yonhap)

Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at Seoul National University's Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, said there is nothing new in the North Korean leader's latest remarks, except for the five-year economic development plan.

"Basically, Kim repeated what the North said in the past -- reversal of the South's attitudes, abolition of barriers (to improved relations) and withdrawal of U.S. troops," said Chang.

North Korea insists that it has succeeded in making a nuclear warhead small enough to be fitted on a ballistic missile, a claim which Seoul and Washington do not buy.

The six-party denuclearization talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia have been stalled since late 2008 when the North abruptly walked away from the negotiations.

Pyongyang has called for early resumption of the talks without conditions, but Seoul and Washington claim that North Korea should first demonstrate its sincere commitment toward denuclearization.

"Pyongyang appears to want to raise tensions on the peninsula in order to pressure the U.S. and South Korea to soften their strategies and open the aperture for engagement," said Ken Gause, a senior analyst on North Korea at CNA Corp. in the U.S., citing the possibility of the North's fifth nuke test.

Touching on inter-Korean ties, analysts said that Kim's message did not contain harsh criticism against Seoul, possibly leaving a door slightly open for dialogue, albeit conditional one.

North Korean citizens are seen on a Pyongyang street on May 8, 2016. (AP-Yonhap) North Korean citizens are seen on a Pyongyang street on May 8, 2016. (AP-Yonhap)

The North's leader said that Pyongyang will seek to "improve and normalize" its relations with countries that are willing to turn friendly by ending their hostile policy toward it.

He also offered to hold military talks between the two rival Koreas in a bid to ease military tension on the peninsula.

Relations between South and North Korea had a short-lived reconciliation last year following their rare deal aimed at reducing military tension on Aug. 25. But their ties have become severely strained since the North's nuclear and missile provocations early this year.

"There are few rebukes against South Korea in his message. It could be viewed as a kind of its offer for dialogue," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Kim Keun-sik, a professor at Kyungnam University, said that the North's leader showed confidence as the head of what the North claims to be a nuclear-powered state at the congress.

"The political gathering is being used as a venue to express his self-confidence that the regime is smoothly sailing by overcoming difficulties," he said.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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