North Korea to Pursue More Advanced Nuclear Technology, Kim Says

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 18: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO COMMERCIAL USE) North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a welcoming dinner on September 18, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korean leader Kim and South Korean President Moon meet for the Inter-Korean summit talks after the 1945 division of the peninsula, and will discuss ways to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. (Photo by Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - SEPTEMBER 18: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY, NO COMMERCIAL USE) North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a welcoming dinner on September 18, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korean leader Kim and South Korean President Moon meet for the Inter-Korean summit talks after the 1945 division of the peninsula, and will discuss ways to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. (Photo by Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images)

(Bloomberg) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the country must constantly strengthen its defense capabilities against the threat of the U.S., such as through the pursuit of more advanced nuclear technology, according to state-run Korean Central News Agency, citing a report he presented to delegates at a Workers’ Party Congress underway in Pyongyang.

The U.S. will “never” change its fundamental approach to North Korea regardless of who’s in power, Kim was cited as saying to his ruling party.

The plans include making smaller and lighter nuclear weapons, proceeding with large nuclear warheads and improving the ability to hit and destroy strategic targets within 15,000 km (9,320 miles). Kim also plans to develop solid-fuel ICBMs and nuclear submarines, and he is seeking to strengthen intelligence-gathering capabilities with satellites, according to KCNA.

The congress was being watched for clues on how Kim will engage with U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. The North Korean leader, who turned 37 on Friday, hasn’t made substantive comments on his weapons program since unveiling a new intercontinental ballistic missile at an October military parade.

Kim was also cited as saying that relations with South Korea has backtracked to pre-Panmunjom Declaration times, as the neighboring country continues to ignore the North’s demands to halt joint military exercises with the U.S. He added that any improvement of inter-Korean relations is wholly dependent on the attitude of South Korea, and that North Korea didn’t see the need to make any “one-sided” demonstration of goodwill.

Kim issued a dire warning in opening remarks to the gathering of 5,000 delegates and party officials, saying the previous five-year plan fell far short of goals and the party would explore a “new path” for making a “big leap forward.”

North Korea’s sanctions-battered economy was dealt further blows last year by natural disasters and Kim’s decision to shut borders due to the coronavirus. Gross domestic product likely shrank by 8.5% in 2020, according to a projection by Fitch Solutions, leaving it smaller than when Kim took power in 2011 with a pledge to improve people’s living standards.

Despite the bonhomie Kim showed in three meetings with outgoing President Donald Trump, the North Korean leader repeatedly rejected the Trump administration’s call for a “complete, verifiable and irreversible” nuclear dismantlement before Pyongyang could receive any rewards. North Korea is likely seeking to calibrate its approach during the transition to preserve Kim’s chances of securing a deal to relieve the sanctions.

The Biden administration has indicated it may be ready to ease sanctions in exchange for steps by Kim to freeze, cap and wind down his atomic arsenal. Biden has said he wants to “jump start” a campaign with U.S. allies and others for denuclearization. Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in a 2017 opinion piece in the New York Times, backed a negotiated settlement with North Korea “that first freezes and then rolls back North Korea’s nuclear program, with inspectors to carefully scrutinize compliance” before a more comprehensive deal is reached.