By Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will convene a rare congress of the ruling party in early January, where he will seek to rally public support and outline new long-term economic and political goals in the face of unprecedented challenges.
Kim chaired a politburo meeting on Tuesday to prepare for the congress, state media reported, without specifying an exact date for its start.
As 2020 ends, the young North Korean leader is faced with compounding crises caused by international sanctions, natural disasters, and a self-imposed border lockdown aimed at preventing a coronavirus outbreak.
While North Korea's nuclear arsenal has grown, Kim's high-stakes personal outreach to U.S. President Donald Trump ended with no sanctions relief, and the incoming administration of president-elect Joe Biden has said it won’t ease sanctions without more concessions.
With Biden's policy toward North Korea still in flux, Kim is more likely to use the congress to focus on domestic issues, particularly the ailing economy and North Korea's "juche" ideology of self-reliance, analysts said.
"Juche is truly being tested for the first time because the pandemic has forced North Korea into self isolation, when until now, it has been able to rely on China as a life support even during the harshest of economic times," said Duyeon Kim, a North Korea expert at the U.S.-based Center for a New American Security.
North Korea has not reported any coronavirus cases, but the economy took a further hit when the country closed its borders to nearly all traffic, sending publicly reported trade with China tumbling by 75%.
The circumstances facing North Korea now are decidedly different from the last party congress in 2016, when Kim unveiled the first 5-year economic plan since 1980.
With few options for solving the country's spiralling problems, Kim's government may roll back some economic and political reforms allowed in the earlier years, analysts said.
"North Korea's political and economic policies may become more conservative, given the prolonged difficulties and the likelihood of their continuation into 2021, and consequently the regime's perceived need to reinforce control to ensure national stability," said Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent researcher and former open-source North Korea analyst for the U.S. government.
Already the government has imposed foreign exchange controls on diplomats, cracked down on currency traders, and markets have been more closely tied to centres of political authority, according to NK Pro, a website that tracks North Korea.
While smugglers, who could help alleviate the worst consequences of the border closure, have been accused of anti-state actions, it said.
In an unusually emotional speech in October, Kim apologised for failing to deliver on his economic promises, but also struck a defiant tone, vowing to crack down on officials accused of corruption or of failing the people, as well as doubling down on his programme of expanding the nuclear deterrent.
In October, Kim called on his country to embark on an 80-day campaign to achieve its goals in every economic sector before the congress in January.
The politburo meeting on Tuesday approved agendas and proposals to be presented at the congress, state news agency KCNA reported.
"All the preparations for the Party Congress are going off smoothly," state news agency KCNA reported.
Commercial satellite imagery has shown formations of people in downtown Pyongyang in recent days, possibly practicing for parades or other public events related to the congress, according to 38 North, a U.S. think tank.
Analysts will be watching for major leadership shuffles, which could provide clues to Kim's plans for the future.
The 2016 congress saw Kim officially elected to the position of chairman of the ruling Workers' Party, and this gathering will likely be used to further cement his rule.
Kim may offer some kind of olive branch to South Korea after saying in October that he hoped the two countries could repair relations after the coronavirus pandemic.
But Kim may not break his silence on the stalled talks with the United States or the new Biden administration, Lee said.
"He will probably want to maintain some flexibility until the Biden administration's North Korea policy takes shape," she said.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Sangmi Cha; Editing by Sam Holmes and Michael Perry)