SEOUL (Dispatches) -- 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 on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs 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.
North Korea has continued to beef up its weapons programs, 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.
Some observers say North Korea is frustrated because Seoul has failed to break away from Washington and revive stalled joint economic projects held back by the U.S.-led sanctions. They also speculate North Korea initially thought South Korea would help it win sanctions relief but got upset after Kim returned home empty-handed from the 2019 summit with Trump.