North Korea’s ruling party is preparing to bestow its top title on leader Kim Jong Un, another sign that the third heir to North Korea’s dynasty of Kims is firmly in control despite his country’s deepening international isolation over one of his key ambitions: to keep developing more and better nuclear weapons.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency said Saturday that the agenda for the congress included reviewing the works of the party’s Central Committee and Central Audit Commission, revising party rules, electing Kim to the top party post and electing a new central leadership for the party.
The decision to formally install — or perhaps simply reinstall — Kim at the top is a step along the lines of his late father and grandfather, who held the title of general secretary of the Workers’ Party and is a mostly symbolic move to demonstrate the young leader is in full control and ready to begin a new era of his own.
Kim is already head of the party, but with the title of first secretary. It wasn’t immediately clear whether he would be elected to the same post, or an unspecified new one. His father, Kim Jong Il, holds the posthumous title of “eternal general secretary” and his grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung, is “eternal president.”
Kim opened the lavish congress with a brief speech on Friday that singled out North Korea’s advances in developing nuclear weapons and rockets capable of putting satellites into orbit, as examples of the country’s progress in the face of international criticism and tough sanctions that threaten to further stifle its struggling economy.
Along with being high political theatre filled with pomp and ceremony — the congress is being held in a lavishly decorated hall decked out with bright red banners and flags bearing the party’s hammer, sickle and pen symbol — the gathering is a major milestone for the young North Korean leader, who was not yet born when the previous congress was held in 1980.
Kim called the congress a “historic” milestone in a grand struggle pitting the North against “all manner of threats and desperate challenges by the imperialists.” He said it would “put forward the strategic line and tasks to keep ushering in a great golden age of socialist construction and the direction of advance of our revolution.”
The reference to what the North claims was a successful hydrogen bomb test in January brought a standing ovation from the more than 3,400 delegates at the congress. To put a finer point on his defiant message, outside observers believe, the North may be preparing to conduct another nuclear test soon, possibly before the congress is over.
An analysis released by the respected 38 North website, which follows developments in North Korea, said commercial satellite imagery of North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear test site from May 5 suggests Pyongyang may be preparing for a nuclear test “in the near future.”
The analysis said that overall activity at the site is low, but vehicles have been spotted at what is believed to be the Command Center, located approximately 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) south of the test site.
Some North Koreans said they were following the congress on television.
“I saw the congress last night on TV when I was at home with my family,” Pyongyang resident An Myong Hui said Saturday. “Because it’s the first one in 36 years and because Marshal Kim Jong Un was there, it made me feel really emotional.”
Since assuming power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011, Kim has pushed a “byongjin” guns-and-butter policy of developing North Korea’s nuclear weapons while also building its domestic economy.
Though the dual strategy is his trademark policy, many outside economists believe it is unlikely to succeed because of the heavy price the nuclear program brings in international sanctions that keep the country’s economy from achieving sustainable growth.
All of the previous six congresses were convened by Kim’s grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung. The previous one was used as the stage to formally announce Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, as the second heir to power.
Kim Il Sung died in 1994, and Kim Jong Il — who rarely spoke in public — never called for the convening of a congress, though they were on paper supposed to be held every five years.
This one is clearly designed to put the spotlight on Kim Jong Un, who has yet to travel abroad or meet any world leaders. With that in mind, the North has invited over 100 foreign journalists in to cover the event, though none have been let inside the convention hall.
Instead, they have been kept busy touring showcase factories, hospitals and historic sites.