Seoul, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called a policy conference where he is expected to review state affairs, including a COVID-19 outbreak, and possibly address relations with Washington and Seoul amid its nuclear stimulus.
The plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee began in the capital, Pyongyang, on Wednesday, the official Korean Central News Agency said on Thursday, and could last for several days.
The meeting comes amid signs that North Korea is preparing for its first nuclear test in nearly five years, which would further aggravate a provocative streak of weapons demonstrations this year that has included several intercontinental ballistic missile tests.
KCNA released photos of meeting attendees entering a party building and said they approved of the agenda to be discussed, which was not specified.
State media previously said the meeting would review state affairs and make decisions on a “series of important matters.” The meeting is expected to address the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. World Health Organization officials said on Wednesday they believed the outbreak was getting worse and asked for more information to be shared with the United Nations health agency.
South Korean officials and experts have said Kim could address relations with the United States and compete with South Korea amid stalled diplomacy and double down on his ambitions to build a nuclear arsenal that could threaten the American allies and the American homeland.
At the party’s previous plenary meeting in December, Kim reiterated his vow to bolster his military nuclear program and order the production of more powerful and sophisticated weapons systems in talks that lasted a record five days.
The North Korean meeting came as U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with her South Korean and Japanese counterparts in Seoul on Wednesday, emphasizing trilateral security cooperation amid accelerating the North Korean threat. She warned of a “quick and forceful response” if the North carried out a nuclear test, but did not give details.
Sherman’s visit to Asia came after North Korea launched a one-day record eight ballistic missiles into the sea from multiple locations in its territory on Sunday, prompting the United States and its Asian allies to respond through missile launches and aerial demonstrations. involving dozens of fighter jets.
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, North Korean envoy Kim Song chastised those calling for tougher sanctions against the North for its weapons testing. He said his country was exercising its right to self-defense by upgrading its weapons while facing “direct threats” from the United States, which is “determined to strengthen” its military power on the Korean peninsula and in North Asia. .
His comments were backed by envoys from China and Russia, who questioned the effectiveness of sanctions in slowing North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. China’s envoy urged the United States to make major concessions, such as lifting sanctions in some areas and halting its joint military exercises with Asian allies that North Korea describes as rehearsals of ‘invasion.
Shaking an old pattern of precariousness, North Korea has already set an annual ballistic launch record in the first half of 2022, firing 31 missiles in 18 different launch events, including its first ICBM demonstrations since 2017.
The unusually rapid pace of testing activity underscores Kim Jong Un’s dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-running negotiations to leverage its nuclear weapons for economic and social benefits. much-needed security concessions, experts say.
Kim could raise the bar as soon as US and South Korean officials say North Korea has all but completed preparations to detonate a nuclear device at its testing ground in the northeast city of Punggye-ri from the country. The site had been inactive since hosting the North’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb designed for its ICBMs.
Kim Jun-rak, spokesman for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the South Korean and US military are closely monitoring North Korean activities at nuclear-related facilities and sites, but did not make precise predictions about the timing of the possible nuclear test. .
With a new test, North Korea could claim it has acquired the ability to build a bomb small enough to be clustered on a multi-warhead ICBM or its growing range of short-range missiles threatening South Korea and the United States. Japan, according to analysts.
Kim Jong Un’s lobbying campaign has not been slowed by the COVID-19 outbreak, despite fears it could be serious in a country that has poor public health care and was in large part not vaccinated. GAVI, the nonprofit that runs the UN-backed COVAX vaccine distribution program, believes North Korea has started administering doses donated by its ally China. But the number of doses and how they were distributed were not known.
Some experts say North Korea would prioritize inoculating groups based on the country’s economic needs, including workers and soldiers involved in trade or major construction projects that Kim considers crucial to his rule. . North Korea is believed to have shunned COVAX vaccines because they come with oversight requirements, such as ensuring fair distribution.
While the Biden administration has said it will push for additional sanctions if North Korea carries out another nuclear test, divisions among the permanent members of the UN Security Council cloud the prospects for punitive measures significant.
Russia and China have this year vetoed US-sponsored resolutions that would have increased sanctions, insisting Washington should focus on reviving dialogue. Nuclear talks between the United States and North Korea have stalled since 2019 over disagreements over easing sanctions in return for North Korean disarmament measures, underscoring Kim’s reluctance to cede a arsenal which he considers his best guarantee of survival.