SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has called a political conference where he is expected to review state affairs, including a COVID-19 outbreak, and potentially address ties with Washington and Seoul amid his revived nuclear brinkmanship .
The plenary meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee began Wednesday in the capital Pyongyang, the official Korean Central News Agency said on Thursday, and may last for several days.
The meeting comes amid signs that North Korea is preparing for its first nuclear test blast in nearly five years, which would further escalate a provocative series of arms demonstrations this year that included multiple ICBM tests.
KCNA released photos of the meeting’s attendees entering a party building and said they approved the agenda, which would be discussed, which was not specified.
State media earlier said the meeting will review state affairs and make decisions on a “number of important issues”. The meeting will likely address the country’s COVID-19 outbreak. officials at the World Health Organization said on Wednesday they believed the outbreak was getting worse and called for more information to be shared with the UN health agency.
South Korean officials and experts have said Kim could address ties with the United States and rival South Korea amid long-stalled diplomacy and redouble his ambitions to build a nuclear arsenal that could threaten US allies and the American homeland.
During the party’s last plenary session in December, Kim reiterated his vows to step up his military nuclear program and mandate the production of more powerful and sophisticated weapon systems, during discussions that lasted a record five days.
The North Korean meeting took place US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with their counterparts from South Korea and Japan in Seoul on Wednesday and emphasized trilateral security cooperation in the face of the increasing North Korean threat. She warned of a “swift and forceful response” if the North proceeds with a nuclear test, but did not elaborate.
Sherman’s visit to Asia comes after North Korea on Sunday launched a record eight ballistic missiles into the sea from multiple locations on its territory, prompting the US and its Asian allies to respond with missile launches and air demonstrations involving dozens of warplanes.
In a speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, North Korean envoy Kim Song slammed those who are pushing for increased sanctions against the north over its weapons tests. He said his country is exercising its right to self-defense by modernizing its weapons while facing “direct threats” from the United States, which is “intent on increasing its military might in the Korean Peninsula and North Asia.” .
His comments were supported by envoys China and Russia, who questioned the effectiveness of sanctions in slowing North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. China’s envoy called on the United States to make significant concessions, such as lifting sanctions on certain areas and halting its joint military exercises with Asian allies, which North Korea portrays as invasion samples.
Shaking up an old pattern of brinkmanship, North Korea has already set an annual ballistic launch record in the first half of 2022, launching 31 missiles in 18 different launch events, including its first ICBM demonstrations since 2017.
The unusually rapid pace of testing activity underscores Kim Jong Un’s twin intentions to advance his arsenal and pressure the Biden administration over protracted negotiations aimed at using its nuclear weapons for much-needed economic benefits and security concessions, experts say.
Kim could up the ante once US and South Korean officials say North Korea has all but completed preparations to detonate a nuclear device at its test site in the northeastern city of Punggye-ri. The site has been dormant since the North’s sixth nuclear test in September 2017, when it claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb developed for its ICBMs.
With a new test, North Korea could claim it has acquired the ability to build a bomb small enough to be strapped onto an ICBM with multiple warheads or onto its growing array of short-range missiles threatening South Korea and Japan, say analysts.
Kim’s pressure campaign has not been slowed by the COVID-19 outbreak, despite fears it could be severe in a country with poor public health and largely unvaccinated countries. GAVI, the nonprofit organization that runs the United Nations-backed COVAX vaccine distribution program, believes North Korea has started giving doses administered by its ally China. But the number of doses and how they were distributed was not known.
Some experts say North Korea would prioritize vaccinating groups based on the country’s economic needs, including workers and soldiers involved in trades or major construction projects that Kim believes are crucial to his rule. North Korea was believed to have avoided COVAX vaccines because they came with surveillance requirements, such as B. Ensuring fair distribution.
While the Biden administration has said it will push for additional sanctions if North Korea conducts another nuclear test, disagreements among permanent members of the UN Security Council have blurred the prospects for meaningful sanctions.
Russia and China this year vetoed US-backed resolutions that would have tightened sanctions and insisted Washington should focus on reviving dialogue. US-North Korea nuclear talks have stalled since 2019 over disagreements over easing sanctions in exchange for North Korean disarmament moves, underscoring Kim’s reluctance to surrender an arsenal he sees as his strongest guarantee of survival.
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