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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the first day of the 8th Congress of the Workers' Party in Pyongyang, North Korea on Jan. 6, 2021.

KCNA KCNA/Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened to expand his nuclear arsenal as he disclosed a list of high-tech weapons systems under development, saying the fate of relations with the United States depends on whether it abandons its hostile policy, state media reported Saturday.

Kim’s comments during a key meeting of the ruling party this week were seen as applying pressure on the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has called Kim a “thug” and has criticized his summits with President Donald Trump.

The Korean Central News Agency quoted Kim as saying the “key to establishing new relations between (North Korea) and the United States is whether the United States withdraws its hostile policy.”

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“This foreshows the North Korean-U.S. relations won’t be smooth in the next four years with Biden in office,” said Nam Sung-wook, an expert on North Korea at Korea University in South Korea, adding any concessions from Kim were unlikely.

Kim said he won’t use his nuclear arsenal unless “hostile forces” intend to use their nuclear weapons against North Korea first. He also suggested he is open to dialogue if Washington is too, but stressed North Korea must further strengthen its military and nuclear capability to cope with intensifying U.S. hostility.

Kim didn’t cite any specific U.S. actions. North Korea has previously called regular U.S. military drills with South Korea, flights by U.S. surveillance aircraft and the American military presence in South Korea as proof of hostility. In particular, the North views the U.S.-South Korean drills as an invasion rehearsal, though the allies have repeatedly denied that.

Kim listed state-of-the-art weapons systems that he said were under development. They include a multi-warhead missile, underwater-launched nuclear missiles, solid-fueled long-range missiles and spy satellites. He said North Korea must also advance the precision attack capability on targets in the 15,000 kilometre (9,320 mile)-striking range, an apparent reference to the U.S. mainland, and develop technology to manufacture smaller, lighter nuclear warheads to be mounted on long-range missiles more easily.

“Nothing would be more foolish and dangerous than not strengthening our might tirelessly and having an easygoing attitude at a time when we clearly see the enemy’s state-of-the-art weapons are being increased more than ever,” Kim said. “The reality is that we can achieve peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula when we constantly build up our national defence and suppress U.S. military threats.”

It’s unclear if North Korea is capable of developing such systems. It’s one of the world’s most cloistered countries, and estimates on the exact status of its nuclear and missile programs vary widely. In 2018, the South Korean government said North Korea was estimated to have up to 60 nuclear weapons.

“What they want to tell the U.S. is we’re developing the new strategic weapons that you can see as the most intimidating. Do you want to come to the negotiating table?” Choi Kang, vice-president of Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said. “While Kim leaves the door open for talks, he’s still sending a message to Biden that he’s not an easy (dialogue) partner.”

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The ruling party congress convened for the first time in five years. KCNA said Kim spoke for nine hours during his review of party projects from Tuesday to Thursday.

The congress is the Workers Party’s top decision-making body, and it is being held as Kim faces what appears to be the toughest moment of his nine-year rule due to the triple blow to his already-fragile economy – pandemic-related border closings that have sharply reduced the North’s external trade, a spate of natural disasters last summer and U.S.-led sanctions.

During his opening-day speech, Kim called the difficulties the “worst-ever” and “unprecedented.” He also admitted his previous economic plans had failed and vowed to adopt a new five-year development plan.

Since taking power in late 2011, Kim, who turned 37 on Friday, has pushed the so-called “byungjin” policy of simultaneously seeking economic growth and the expansion of his nuclear deterrent.

After a torrid run of weapons tests in 2016-17, Kim claimed to have acquired the ability to attack the American mainland with nuclear missiles. The weapons tests invited new rounds of crippling U.S.-led sanctions, including a ban on key export items such as coal, seafood and textiles and a significant curtailing of oil imports.

In 2018, Kim abruptly entered into nuclear disarmament talks with Trump, seeking the lifting of sanctions without fully giving up his nuclear program. But their diplomacy broke down during the second summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in early 2019, when Trump rejected Kim’s request for broad sanctions relief in return for dismantling his main nuclear complex, in what would amount to a limited denuclearization step.

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Kim has since openly vowed to build up his nuclear capability.

Biden, who will take office on Jan. 20, is unlikely to hold direct meetings with Kim unless the North Korean leader takes significant denuclearization steps.

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