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N Korea begins key meeting before year-end deadline for US

Locals participate in a public dance on the 28th anniversary of the start of Chairman Kim Jong Il's leadership of the Korean People's Army at the Monument to Party Founding in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Dec., 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)
Locals participate in a public dance on the 28th anniversary of the start of Chairman Kim Jong Il's leadership of the Korean People's Army at the Monument to Party Founding in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Dec., 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

SEOUL – North Korea has opened a high-profile political conference to discuss how to overcome “harsh trials and difficulties," state media reported Sunday, days before a year-end deadline set by Pyongyang for Washington to make concessions in nuclear negotiations.

The ruling Workers’ Party meeting is a focus of keen attention as some observers predict North Korea might use the conference to announce it would abandon faltering diplomacy with the U.S. and lift its moratorium on major weapons test.

The Korean Central News Agency reported that leader Kim Jong Un presided over a plenary meeting of the party's Central Committee convened in Pyongyang on Saturday. It called the gathering the “first-day session,” suggesting it would continue for at least another day.

The meeting is intended to “overcome the manifold and harsh trials and difficulties and further accelerate the development of the revolution with transparent anti-imperialist independent stand and firm will,” KCNA said.

The meeting will also discuss “important matters" in the party and national defense, KCNA said.

KCNA said Kim made a speech on overall state affairs and the work of the Central Committee, but gave no further details.

In April 2018, at the start of nuclear talks with the U.S., North Korea held the same Workers’ Party meeting and announced it would suspend nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and shift its national focus to developing the economy.

After his second summit with President Donald Trump in February in Vietnam failed, Kim gave the U.S. until the end of this year to offer new initiatives to salvage the nuclear negotiations. North Korea has recently warned that its resumption of tests of long-range missiles and nuclear devices depends on U.S. action.

Restarting nuclear and ICBM tests would be a blow to Trump, who has boasted that North Korea's moratorium was a major foreign policy win. But that would also likely completely derail diplomacy with the U.S. and further dim the prospect for North Korea to get badly needed sanctions relief to rebuild its troubled economy, some experts said.

North Korea is pushing to win major sanctions relief in return for limited denuclearization steps, but the U.S. maintains sanctions will stay in place until North Korea takes significant steps toward ridding itself of nuclear weapons and technology.