N. Korea prepares for massive show of unity in rare ruling party congress
May 3, 2016
SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea is gearing up for its first ruling party congress in more than three decades, with enigmatic leader Kim Jong Un giving few hints about what he will do once he takes center stage.
The 7th Workers’ Party Congress is due to start Friday, four months after the North staged its fourth nuclear test, followed by a long-range rocket test that prompted harsh new U.N. sanctions. Both are part of the country’s stated goal of being able to strike at the U.S. mainland.
The 30-something leader took the reins more than four years ago, but North Korea watchers say the high-profile meeting will allow him to emerge from the shadows of his father and grandfather, who ruled before him in the world’s first communist family dynasty.
“The party congress is going to basically cut the training wheels off the bicycle,” said Michael Madden, an expert on the isolated country’s leadership.
The U.S. and its allies will be watching closely for major military or economic policy changes from Kim.
So far, he has continued the family tradition of pursuing nuclear weapons, provoking crises and keeping a tight rein on the populace. He also is trying to boost an economy that is suffering so badly that basic medicines were in short supply even before the new sanctions.
China, the closest thing the North has to an ally because Beijing likes a buffer with democratic South Korea, has grown increasingly impatient with Kim over his weapons programs and will be looking for a sign of moderation.
China sent a large delegation to the previous party congress, which formalized Kim Jong-il’s status as leader-in-waiting. But it is not expected to send anybody to this one.
The secretive nation of about 24 million people has released few details about the meeting other than a start date. It launched a 70-day loyalty campaign in February, calling on workers to work overtime to boost production levels.
Experts say Kim may use the congress as a platform to declare the success of his so-called byungjin policy of simultaneously pursuing a nuclear program and economic development.
“He wants to build nuclear weapons and he’s going to continue to do that,” Madden said. “And he’s going to try, despite the horrifying sanctions regime, to develop the economy.”
North Korea has seen some economic growth under Kim’s regime, mainly in the capital Pyongyang, where the elite live. But malnutrition remains a major problem. The country recently warned that an “arduous journey” lies ahead that will include food shortages, which hit hard in the mid-1990s, the last time China went along with sanctions.
Kim could also use the gathering of thousands of party delegates from across the country as a chance to reshuffle the ranks and install fellow “millennial members,” Madden said. Kim already has shaken up the regime’s hierarchy with a series of executions, including of his powerful uncle in 2013, and other high-level purges.
Or he may just take on a new title. South Korean news agency Yonhap reported that Kim has three titles — first secretary of the Workers’ Party, first chairman of the National Defense Commission and supreme military commander. Yonhap quoted a source familiar with North Korea affairs as saying Kim may become chairman of the party’s central committee — a post that had been abolished.
The fact that Kim convened the congress is in itself a statement. His father Kim Jong-il didn’t hold one, but analysts say the young leader is looking to legitimize his rule by restoring the party’s authority.
Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be 33, was not even born when the last Congress was held in 1980, and he had little training or military experience when he inherited power after his father died of a heart attack in December 2011.
The third and youngest son of Kim Jong Il, he reportedly became the heir-apparent after his older half-brother fell out of favor, and there has been speculation that he has faced resistance because of his relative youth in a Confucian society that prizes experience.
“He hopes to use this meeting to finalize the consolidation of his authority and emphasize his ruling policy of byungjin,” said Katharine H.S. Moon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “In the larger sense, (Kim) is rebuilding the institutions of governance that fell apart during the Great Famine of the 1990s under his father’s watch.”
Kim has sought to align his leadership with grandfather Kim Il Sung, the Soviet-backed revolutionary hero who founded the country. The younger Kim has appeared in public more than his reclusive father and revived his grandfather’s tradition of giving a New Year’s speech on state television.
The pressure of U.N. sanctions has failed to curb his nuclear ambitions. Instead, the North has continued with a steady drumbeat of missile tests and threats to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. and South Korea. He is also keeping the world guessing about whether another nuclear test could serve as a grand entrance.
South Korea’s military has been on high alert for weeks. President Barack Obama recently called the North a “massive challenge” and said the U.S. was preparing a “shield” to protect itself from “relatively low-level” threats from the regime. Analysts warn against taking the North’s threats too lightly, saying even recent missile test failures provide lessons for its scientists.
Kim Joon-hyung, a professor in international politics at South Korea’s Handong Global University, said the North Korean leader is ready to put his own stamp on power.
“Kim looks like he wants to proclaim a new era — to show the world ‘It’s the era of Kim Jong Un.’ ”
Stars and Stripes staffer Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.