(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; ADDS unification ministry's remarks, expert's comments, more info)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Jan. 6 (Yonhap) -- North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has admitted the failure to meet the country's economic development goals as he opened the ruling party's first congress in nearly five years, state media said Wednesday.
Kim made the acknowledgement in his opening speech for the eighth congress of the Workers' Party, which took place in Pyongyang on Tuesday, according to the Korean Central News Agency.
The party congress, the North's biggest political event, was launched amid expectations the North will unveil its policy directions on the economy and foreign affairs, including its stance on the United States and South Korea amid stalled denuclearization negotiations.
"The five-year economic development strategy period wrapped up last year, but the results in most areas fell extremely short of our goals," Kim said in the opening address.
Describing the past five years as "unprecedented" and the "worst of the worst" time for the country, Kim called for self-reliance to boost its strength.
"The surest and fastest way to tackle the current multiple challenges facing us is to make every possible effort to strengthen our own power and our own self-reliant capacity," he said.
The North Korean leader also said he will suggest "the key line of struggle and strategic and tactical policies" for "the cause of national reunification, promoting external relations and strengthening the work of the Party" during the congress.
The session has drawn keen attention from the outside world to gauge the North's new foreign policy line ahead of Joe Biden's inauguration as the next U.S. president on Jan. 20 as it has stayed mum on Biden's victory as of now.
The North did not mention the U.S. or South Korea at the opening of the event.
Seoul's unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs expressed hope that the ongoing party congress could serve as an opportunity for the North to contribute to building peace and improving stalled cross-border ties.
The North has not made public the exact schedule for the party meeting, but it could last multiple days given that the previous congress was held for four days.
It is the second party congress under the current leader, who assumed power in late 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il.
The previous congress was held in 2016 for the first time in more than 30 years. During the session, the North announced its five-year economic development plan that ended last year and declared the "byongjin" policy of simultaneously seeking nuclear weapons and economic advance.
Kim has held three meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump, but denuclearization talks have made little progress since their no-deal summit in Hanoi in 2019.
Eyes are also on whether Kim's powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong, will be promoted to a higher position in the Worker's Party during the session.
This week's event comes as North Korea has been faced with a triple whammy of the fallout of summertime back-to-back typhoons, a protracted border closure due to the coronavirus pandemic and global sanctions on its economy.
At the congress, 250 members of the party's leadership, 4,750 delegates and 2,000 observers participated, an increase from the previous session despite the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the delegates, 1,959 people were representing the political sector, while 801 stood for economic affairs, up from 423 in 2016. Delegates representing the military, meanwhile, dropped from 719 to 408.
The number of members at the presidium for the congress remained unchanged at 39, but 29 of the positions were newly filled, with the leader's sister Kim Yo-jong and Jo Yong-won, a senior party official, among them.
The younger Kim and Jo were often spotted accompanying the leader during his field trips last year.
In photos released by state media, the event venue was seen packed with thousands of participants not wearing face masks. North Korea claims there has not been a single COVID-19 case on its soil.
Amid speculation over a possible military parade timed for the rare party meeting, U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams said Tuesday there hasn't been any signs of a major provocation as of now.
Such absence of provocations could be "constructive" for future negotiations between the North and the U.S., but critics say the North would likely stick to its early demand for sanctions relief, while seeking to retain its nuclear weapons.
"It would be constructive for negotiations if North Korea abstains from welcoming the Biden administration with a military provocation," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said.
"Yet the fundamental problem remains that Kim wants regime-sustaining economic growth while retaining nuclear weapons," he said. "Pyongyang is thus likely to demand sanctions relief for merely reducing tensions rather than making progress on denuclearization."
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