SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un praised what he called achievements and victories that strengthened national power and boosted the country’s prestige this year, as he opened a key political meeting to set new policy goals for 2024, state media reported Wednesday.
Experts said that during this week’s year-end plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, North Korea would likely hype its progress in arms development because the country lacks economic achievements amid persistent international sanctions and pandemic-related economic hardships.
In his opening-day speech at the meeting that began Tuesday, Kim defined 2023 “as a year of great turn and great change both in name and reality, in which (North Korea) left a great trace in the glorious course of development in the efforts to improve the national power and enhance the prestige of the country,” according to the official Korean Central News Agency.
KCNA said North Korea achieved a rapid advancement in its defense capabilities this year in the wake of the launch of its first military spy satellite in November and the introduction of other sophisticated weapons.
KCNA said North Korea also reported a rare good harvest this year as the country finished building new irrigation systems ahead of schedule and met major agricultural state objectives. It said that modern streets, new houses and other buildings were built in Pyongyang and elsewhere across the country.
According to a recent assessment by South Korea’s state-run Rural Development Administration, North Korea’s grain production this year was estimated at 4.8 million tons, a 6.9% increase from last year’s 4.5 million tons, thanks to favorable weather conditions. But the 4.8 million tons are still short by about 0.7 million tons of sufficient annual levels, as experts say North Korea needs about 5.5 million tons of grain to feed its 25 million people each year.
Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, said that during the first day of the Workers’ Party meeting, North Korea avoided publicly detailing this year’s economic projects but used rhetoric to boast of its advancing military programs.
The party meeting, expected to last several days, will review state projects from this year and establish new objectives for next year. In recent years, North Korea has published the results of its meeting, including Kim’s closing speech, in state media on Jan. 1, allowing him to skip his New Year’s Day address.
Hong said that attention outside North Korea will focus what it will say about relations with the United States, China and Russia, and steps it would take to solidify Kim’s leadership as he turns 40 next month.
Last week, North Korea test-fired its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile, the solid-fueled Hwasong-18, which is designed to strike the mainland U.S. North Korea said the Hwasong-18 launch, the third of its kind this year, was meant to warn the U.S. and South Korea over their confrontational moves against North Korea.
On Nov. 21, North Korea put its first military spy satellite into orbit, though outside experts question whether it can send militarily useful high-resolution imagery.
The launches of the Hwasong-18 missile and the spy satellite were part of an ongoing run of weapons tests by North Korea since last year. Kim has maintained he was forced to expand his nuclear arsenal to cope with increasing hostilities from the U.S. and its allies toward the North, but foreign experts say he eventually hopes to use an enlarged arsenal to win greater outside concessions when diplomacy resumes.
Last Thursday, South Korean Defense Minister Shin Wonsik told lawmakers that North Korea appeared to be speeding up its weapons testing activities to highlight its achievements in defense sectors because it lacked major progress in the economy and public livelihoods.
In recent years, North Korea’s fragile economy was severely battered by pandemic-related curbs, U.S.-led sanctions and the North’s own mismanagement. But monitoring groups say there are no signs of a humanitarian crisis or social chaos that could threaten Kim’s absolute rule at home.
In August, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service told lawmakers that North Korea’s economy shrank each year from 2020 to 2022 and that its gross domestic product last year was 12% less than in 2016.
Associated Press writer Jiwon Song contributed to this report.