Mystery shrouds rare North Korean Congress

While Kim Jong-un is expected to cement his role as leader at the country's first full congress in 36 years, there is a blackout on information regarding the event

Pyongyang: North Korea kicked off its first ruling party congress for nearly 40 years yesterday, with state media lauding the isolated country's 'prestige' as a nuclear power while maintaining a news blackout on the event itself.

Journalists wait outside the April 25 Palace, where the Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang was held. Pic/AFP
Journalists wait outside the April 25 Palace, where the Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang was held. Pic/AFP

The congress, which is aimed at cementing the absolute rule of leader Kim Jong-un, drew thousands of selected delegates from across the country to Pyongyang for what, in theory at least, was a gathering of North Korea's top decision-making body.

Keynote
The 33-year-old Kim, who was not even born when the last Workers' Party Congress was held in 1980, was believed to have opened the conclave with a keynote address which, when published, will be scrutinised for any sign of a substantive policy shift, especially on the economic front.

Analysts will also be watching for personnel changes as Kim looks to bring in a younger generation of leaders, hand-picked for their loyalty.

Nuclear state
State media previewed the event by hailing the North's most recent nuclear test in January as evidence of its "greatness and prestige as a nuclear power state." And the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea slammed the international community's opposition to Pyongyang's nuclear weapons programme.

"Regardless of whether someone recognises it or not, our status as a nuclear state that is armed with H-bombs cannot change," the committee said in a statement.

There has been widespread speculation about the North preparing another nuclear test to coincide with the congress, as a defiant gesture of strength.

Secretive
While the agenda — and even the duration — of the congress remains unknown, its main objective is clearly to confirm Kim Jong-Un's status as legitimate inheritor of the Kim family's dynastic rule, which spans almost seven decades.

It may also enshrine as formal party doctrine Kim's "byungjin" policy of pursuing nuclear weapons in tandem with economic development. The state television provided no live coverage, devoting its time to archive material and patriotic concerts.

Why a 36-year gap?
> While the Workers' Party is supposed to hold a congress every five years, this is the seventh one in the party's 70-year history. The last one was held in 1980 to crown Kim's father Kim Jong-Il as heir.

> Since then, the country has been dealing with a series of crises — the breakup of the former Soviet Union, natural disasters such as a series of droughts and floods, as well as a devastating famine in the 1990s.

> Some analysts also blamed Kim Jong II, whose 'military-first' policy diminished the party's authority. He never convened a party congress during his 17-year rule.

Good timing?
North Korea has seemed to have dodged massive natural disasters and widespread starvation seen in previous years, while the country's economic situation has slightly improved. Kim Jong-un is expected to boast of improvements under his leadership to the economy and progress in developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.

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