North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has publicly said that America is the greatest threat to the pariah state and that North Korea needs to focus its activities on countering the Unites States as well as improving the size and quality of the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Speaking at the Eighth Workers’ Party Congress, Kim said that North Korea is in the process of developing and testing new weaponry including a nuclear-powered submarine, tactical nuclear weapons and precision hypersonic warheads designed to penetrate missile defense systems and strike the American continent.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying:
“Our foreign political activities should be focused and redirected on subduing the U.S., our biggest enemy and main obstacle to our innovated development. No matter who is in power in the U.S., the true nature of the U.S. and its fundamental policies towards North Korea never change.”
Kim also pledged to expand ties with “anti-imperialist, independent forces”. Details on the new weapons are sparse, but it is known that North Korea has been interested in building submarines with nuclear propulsion and in acquiring submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). These would be a substantial addition to the North Korean military by providing a second-strike capability in the event of war with the United States.
The Trump Presidency has been an erratic time for U.S.-North Korean relations. Initially hostile, with both leaders trading insults over public channels, a thawing occurred with both President Trump and Kim meeting a total of three times.
However, the failure of a joint summit in Hanoi in February 2019, led to a rapid deterioration. In June 2020 the North Koreans quite symbolically destroyed the empty inter-Korean liaison office in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, which has only been set up in 2018.
Then in October 2020, the North Koreans held a military parade in their capital of Pyongyang where they demonstrated their latest ICBM nuclear missile.
The timing of the speech is a key factor. With the new American administration coming to power in a little over a week, plus the political situation in the U.S. currently erratic, Kim’s speech is almost certainly aimed for the ears of President-Elect Biden, who once described the North Korean leader as “a thug”. Evidently Kim wants the new President to be paying attention to him.
Interestingly Kim’s also admitted in his speech that the latest five-year economic plan for the country has failed. According to estimates, North Korean GDP may have shrunk by 8.5% in 2020 due to having to close the border with China because of the Coronavirus. If true, the damage largely reverses any gains made by Kim’s economic reforms since he came to power.
Such a situation could lead to the return to the famines that blighted North Korea in the 1990s. With Kim pledging that such an event would not reoccur during his rule, such a situation is potentially at best personally embarrassing, at worse extremely hazardous to his autocratic rule.
By focussing attention on the external threat represented by the U.S., Kim is also diverting domestic attention away from the internal problems that North Korea remains all too susceptible too.