Mired in crises, North Korea's Kim to open big party meeting

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FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2020, file photo, State Commission of Quality Management staff armed with protective gear and disinfectant, prepare to check the health of travelers arriving from abroad at the Pyongyang Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un Kim is facing the toughest challenges of his nine-year rule. His countrys fragile economy was battered this year by pandemic-related border closings and natural disasters. Hes also likely concerned about President-elect Joe Bidens expected new approach on North Korea. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin, File)

SEOUL – Coronavirus restrictions that have significantly limited his public appearances. Warning signals for an economy battered by pandemic-related border closings and natural disasters. The impending departure of a U.S. president who said he “fell in love” with him.

As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un grapples with the toughest challenges of his nine-year rule, he’s set to open a massive ruling Workers’ Party congress next month to try to muster stronger public loyalty to him and lay out new economic and foreign policies.

While few question Kim’s grip on power, there is still room for things to get worse, especially if the world fails to find a quick way out of the COVID-19 crisis. That would prolong North Korea’s self-imposed lockdown and could possibly set conditions for an economic perfect storm that destabilizes food and exchange markets and triggers panic among the public.

The congress, the first in five years, is the ruling party’s top decision-making body. At the 2016 congress, Kim put himself in front, reaffirming his commitment to developing nuclear weapons and announcing an ambitious economic development plan. Five years later, experts say Kim doesn’t have many options other than to further squeeze his populace for more patience and labor.

“When we get into the specifics, there’s really nothing new the North could present at the congress in terms of developing its economy,” said Hong Min, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification. “The country will continue to close its borders as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and the international sanctions will persist, so there’s no visible room for a breakthrough.”

Kim entered this year with a declaration of “frontal breakthrough” against punishing U.N. sanctions after his high-stakes diplomacy with President Donald Trump fell apart in 2019 over a U.S. refusal to offer extensive sanctions relief in return for limited denuclearization measures.

But Kim’s drive faced an immediate setback. Later in January, North Korea was forced to seal off its international borders, including one with China — its biggest trading partner and aid benefactor — after COVID-19 emerged there.

As a result of the border closure, North Korea’s trade volume with China in the first 10 months of this year fell by 75%. That led to a shortage of raw materials that plunged the North’s factory operation rate to its lowest level since Kim took power in late 2011, and a four-fold price increase of imported foods like sugar and seasonings, South Korea’s spy agency told lawmakers recently.