North Korea began a closely watched ruling party meeting led by Kim Jong Un, state media reported Sunday, amid signs Pyongyang is set to announce a firmer stance toward the United States.
Kim is widely expected in the next week to announce the details of his "new way" for North Korea, following the expiration of its self-imposed end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to offer a better proposal in stalled nuclear talks.
State media coverage of the Workers' Party of Korea meeting offered few hints about the country's direction.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) mentioned an "anti-imperialist" stance and the building up of national defense but gave no other details.
"The plenary meeting goes on," KCNA said, apparently indicating a multiday meeting.
North Korea has boycotted nuclear talks for months and recently threatened to resume long-range missile and nuclear tests. An official said earlier this month that denuclearization was off the negotiating table.
Those threats — mostly made by lower-level officials — were widely seen as an attempt to increase pressure on the U.S. ahead of North Korea's deadline.
Kim's annual New Year's speech is expected to offer much firmer evidence of the country's direction in 2020. In his speech last year, he warned of a "new way" if the talks didn’t progress.
North Korea also threatened to deliver a "Christmas gift" to the U.S., leading many analysts to predict a North Korean holiday missile test. But Christmas passed with no signs of what that "gift" might be.
There are multiple possible explanations for why North Korea has refrained from a major provocation, including last-minute progress between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump or a warning from China, which typically frowns on North Korean missile and nuclear tests.
No 'cold feet'
"But Kim, nevertheless, probably did not get cold feet," said Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser for Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group.
"North Korea's course of action after the year-end deadline will be far more significant than a gift timed to coincide with what it sees as an American holiday. After all, anything can happen in the remaining six days of 2019 after Christmas. And presents can be delivered any time the giver feels so compelled," Kim said.
Even without a North Korean launch or other provocation, tensions have been high, especially after Japan's public broadcaster NHK erroneously reported Friday that North Korea had launched a missile that landed in the waters east of Japan. The broadcaster later apologized for the false report, saying it was a media training alert.
A tense moment also occurred late Thursday when Camp Casey, a U.S. Army base in South Korea, accidentally blasted an emergency siren instead of taps, a bugle call typically played at military bases at the end of the day.
The false alarms are even more notable considering the relative silence from North Korea during the last couple of weeks, after having ramped up threats in early December.
"It has been the uneasy calm before the storm," said Robert Carlin, a former U.S. intelligence official with decades of experience researching North Korea.
"The air was certainly heavy with Pyongyang's warnings earlier. But then, beginning on December 15, these abruptly stopped and the North became extremely quiet, preternaturally quiet," Carlin said in a post on 38 North, a website specializing in North Korea.
"The silence, in fact, has been deafening," he said.