North Korea to hold key party meeting amid economic woes

 North Korea will hold a high-profile political conference to discuss unspecified crucial issues as it struggles to keep afloat a sanctions-ravaged economy hit further by anti-virus efforts and devastating flooding

SEOUL, South Korea —
North Korea will open a high-profile political conference on Wednesday to discuss unspecified “crucial” issues as it struggles to keep afloat a sanctions-ravaged economy hit further by its anti-virus efforts and devastating flooding.

The ruling Workers’ Party elite will determine a matter of “crucial significance in developing the Korean revolution” and increasing the party’s “fighting efficiency” during Wednesday’s plenary meeting of its Central Committee, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday. It didn’t provide further details, including the agenda of the meeting.

The announcement of the meeting came as the United States and South Korea began their annual summertime military exercises, which have been scaled down this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

North Korean official media have yet to comment on this year’s drills, which mainly involve computer-simulated war scenarios. North Korea usually bristles at the allies’ combined training, which it describes as an invasion rehearsal, and has recently threatened to abandon stalled nuclear talks unless Washington discards what it perceives as “hostile” policies toward the North.

The ruling party officials also could discuss issues related to the economy and the party’s organizational reforms. It remains to be seen whether party leaders will address the stalemated nuclear negotiations with the United States.

During the last plenary meeting of the party’s Central Committee in December, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed deep frustration over diplomacy with the Trump administration and vowed to bolster his nuclear deterrent in response to “gangster-like” U.S. pressure. He also warned of unspecified “shocking” action and said his country would soon reveal a new strategic weapon to the world.

Talks between North Korea and the U.S. faltered after the collapse of Kim’s second summit with President Donald Trump in February 2019, when the Americans rejected North Korea’s demands for major sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

During a meeting of the party’s political bureau last week, Kim said his country faces the dual challenge of fending off the coronavirus and repairing damage from torrential rain that lashed the country in recent weeks, destroying thousands of homes and nearly 100,000 acres of crops. Kim insisted North Korea will keep its borders shut and reject any outside help.

Also last week, Kim sacked the premier of his Cabinet following an evaluation of economic performance. The party’s political bureau also discussed setting up an unspecified new department in the Central Committee to help safeguard the “dignity and interests of the state and people,” KCNA said.

During the party meeting in December, Kim declared a “frontal breakthrough” against U.S.-led sanctions while urging his nation to stay resilient in a struggle for economic self reliance. But experts say the coronavirus crisis likely derailed some of Kim’s major economic goals by forcing the country into a lockdown that shut its border with China — the North’s major ally and economic lifeline — and potentially hampered his ability to mobilize people for labor.

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris on Tuesday met with South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young, Seoul’s top point man on North Korea, and they reaffirmed the allies’ commitment to resuming nuclear diplomacy with the North, Lee’s ministry said.

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