SEOUL, South Korea — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has convened a political conference where he’s expected to review state affairs, including a COVID-19 outbreak, and possibly address relations with Washington and Seoul amid his revived nuclear brinkmanship.
The plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee began Wednesday in the capital, Pyongyang, the official Korean Central News Agency said Thursday, and may last several days.
The meeting comes amid signs North Korea is preparing for its first nuclear test explosion in nearly five years, which would further escalate a provocative streak in weapons demonstrations this year that has included multiple tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
KCNA published photos of the meeting’s participants walking into a party building and said they approved of the agenda that would be discussed, which wasn’t specified.
State media previously said the meeting would review state affairs and make decisions on a “series of important issues.” The meeting is likely to address the country’s COVID-19 outbreak. Officials at the World Health Organization said Wednesday they believed the outbreak was worsening and requested more information be shared with the U.N. health agency.
Read more: Beyond the Shadows in North Korea
South Korean officials and experts have said Kim may address relations with the United States and rival South Korea amid long-stalled diplomacy and double down on his ambitions to build a nuclear arsenal that could threaten U.S. allies and the American homeland.
During the party’s previous plenary meeting in December, Kim repeated his vow to boost his military nuclear program and order the production of more powerful and sophisticated weapons systems during discussions that lasted a record five days.
The North Korean meeting took place as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with her counterparts from South Korea and Japan on Wednesday in Seoul, emphasizing trilateral security cooperation in the face of the accelerating North Korean threat. She warned a “swift and forceful response” if the North proceeds with a nuclear test but didn’t elaborate.
Sherman’s visit to Asia came after North Korea launched a single-day record of eight ballistic missiles into the sea from multiple locations across its territory on Sunday, prompting the U.S. and its Asian allies to respond with tit-for-tat missile launches and aerial demonstrations involving dozens of fighter jets.
In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, North Korean envoy Kim Song berated those pushing for strengthened sanctions against the North over its weapons tests. He said his country was exercising its rights to self-defense by modernizing its weapons while facing “direct threats” by the United States, which is “hell bent on reinforcing” its military might in the Korean Peninsula and northern 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 significant concessions, such as lifting sanctions in certain areas and halting its joint military exercises with Asian allies that North Korea portrays as invasion rehearsals.
Jolting an old pattern of brinkmanship, North Korea has already set an annual record in ballistic launches through the first half of 2022, firing 31 missiles over 18 different launch events, including its first demonstrations of ICBMs since 2017.
The unusually fast pace in testing activity underscores Kim Jong Un’s dual intent to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over long-stalled negotiations aimed at leveraging its nukes for badly needed economic benefits and security concessions, experts say.
Kim may up the ante soon as U.S. and South Korean officials say North Korea has all but finished preparations to detonate a nuclear device at its testing ground in the northeastern town of Punggye-ri. 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, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the South Korean and U.S. militaries were closely monitoring North Korean activities at nuclear-related facilities and sites but didn’t make specific predictions about the timing of the possible nuclear test.
With a new test, North Korea may claim it has acquired an ability to build a bomb small enough to be clustered on a multiwarhead ICBM or on its widening array of short-range missiles threatening South Korea and Japan, analysts say.
Kim Jong Un undaunted by COVID-19 threat
Kim Jong Un’s pressure campaign hasn’t been slowed by the COVID-19 outbreak, despite fears it may be severe in a country that has poor public health care and was largely unvaccinated. GAVI, the nonprofit that runs the U.N.-backed COVAX distribution program for vaccines, believes North Korea has begun administering doses given by its ally China. But the number of doses and how they were being distributed wasn’t 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 Kim considers crucial to his rule. North Korea was believed to have shunned COVAX vaccines because they came with monitoring requirements, such as ensuring fair distribution.
While the Biden administration has said it would push for additional sanctions if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, the divisions between permanent members of the U.N. Security Council make the prospects for meaningful punitive measures unclear.
Russia and China this year vetoed U.S.-sponsored resolutions that would have increased sanctions, insisting Washington should focus on reviving dialogue. Nuclear talks between the U.S. and North Korea have stalled since 2019 because of disagreements over easing sanctions in exchange for North Korean disarmament steps, which underscored Kim’s unwillingness to give away an arsenal he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.