Kim did not flag any fundamental change in direction, however, nor suggest in the Tuesday remarks that he would approach the West cap-in-hand for sanctions relief. The â€œquickest and surest solutionâ€ to the problems North Korea is facing is the â€œreinforcement of our very own self-reliant power by all possible means,â€ he said.
He also celebrated the regimeâ€™s â€œmiraculous victoriesâ€ over the past five years and the â€œremarkableâ€ achievement of being able to hold the Eighth Congress of the ruling Workersâ€™ Party of Korea during a pandemic, as he addressed about 7,000 delegates who were not wearing masks.
But he stressed the â€œheavy responsibility of leading Korea to a stronger and richer path in this world full of harsh challenges and instability,â€ and finding a â€œshortcut to bring happiness to the people of our nation.â€
It was only the second party Congress to take place in the past four decades, with previous gatherings in 2016 and 1980, as Kim appears to move toward a Chinese model of five-yearly meetings to review and chart economic plans.
Kim made no mention of the United States in what was a domestically focused speech, although he said that â€œreactionary forcesâ€ who are hostile toward North Korea â€œsuffered severe damage.â€
But unlike in 2016, he also made no mention of nuclear weapons, and his language left the door open to possible engagement with the President-elect Biden, experts said.
â€œHeâ€™s leaving room to deal with the Biden administration,â€ said John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. â€œItâ€™s very hard not to see that as deliberate.â€
Some experts have expressed concern that Kim might greet the incoming Biden administration with a missile test, as a way of getting Washingtonâ€™s attention and raising itself up the diplomatic agenda. So far, at least, there is no sign of that, and Delury said the two sides are â€œlooking to size one another up.â€
Lim Eul-chul, an expert on the North Korean economy at South Koreaâ€™s Kyungnam University, said he saw hints of possible economic reforms in the next five-year plan that should be announced this week as the Congress continues.
â€œKim himself is painfully aware of the problems inside the North Korean society,â€ he said.
In his speech, Kim said officials had been dispatched to different parts of the country â€œto sincerely listen to voices of party members, farmers and workers on the ground.â€
Lim said that signals Kimâ€™s willingness to â€œunderstand public sentiment at the grass-roots level and develop a more realistic and effective solution.â€
After closing its borders soon after the coronavirus pandemic emerged in neighboring China, North Korea says it has not recorded any cases of the virus, although experts and South Koreaâ€™s government say this is hard to believe.
Kim reported from Seoul.