North Korea's Kim vows to comprehensively expand diplomacy at party congress

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang
Hyonhee Shin

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un explored ways to renew inter-Korean ties and vowed to expand diplomatic relations, state media said on Friday, as he hosted a rare party congress less than two weeks before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The eighth congress of the ruling Workers' Party came amid a prolonged gridlock in negotiations aimed at dismantling North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes in return for U.S. sanction relief.

On its third day on Thursday, Kim raised the issue of reshaping South Korean affairs "as required by the prevailing situation and the changed times" and discussed foreign policy, the official KCNA news agency reported, without elaborating.

He "declared the general orientation and the policy stand of our party for comprehensively expanding and developing the external relations," KCNA said.

Biden will come into office facing the thorny task of engineering a breakthrough in the stalemate, after a second summit between Kim and outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019 failed to reach agreement.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kim was likely seeking to play a more proactive role in South Korea and U.S. ties, emboldened by his country's elevated standing after successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests in 2017 and summits with Trump.

"He appears to be gauging how to set relations with the Biden administration based on what they see as a self-defensive nuclear deterrent," Yang said.

'WHOLESOME AND REVOLUTIONARY LIFESTYLE'

Despite a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing in 2018, North Korea continued to beef up its weapons programmes, unveiling what was deemed its largest ICBM yet at a parade in October.

Kim on Wednesday vowed to boost military capabilities to a "much higher level."

Inter-Korean relations made some headway around 2018 summits but have soured as the nuclear talks stalled.

An official at Seoul's Unification Ministry said it was the first time North Korea used the phrase "South Korea affairs," which it would usually refer to by "North-South relations," and the government is closely monitoring developments.

Kim also discussed ways to open "a fresh golden age" in its campaign for socialist culture. Pyongyang has intensified its crackdown on outside information, enacting a new law last month banning foreign materials that could instigate "reactionary thought."

Kim called for "establishing our own wholesome and revolutionary lifestyle in all spheres of social life and thoroughly eliminating non-socialist elements," KCNA said.

The gathering is aimed at reviewing the party's work since its last meeting in 2016 and outlining a new five-year economic plan, and diplomatic and military blueprints.

KCNA said the congress will continue on Friday, the young leader's birthday, which North Korea was seen preparing to celebrate with a military parade and other events.

Kim is expected to give a public message about his new plans once the meeting is over. It lasted four days in 2016, but the longest congress was in 1970 which took 12 days.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Sam Holmes and Lincoln Feast.)