May 6, 2016 12:24 AM
North Korea congress starts; foreign media kept out so far
The Associated Press
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) North Korea slowly lifted the curtain Friday on the first full congress of its ruling party since 1980, bringing foreign journalists to the venue without immediately letting them in, or revealing just how leader Kim Jong Un will make use of possibly his greatest spotlight yet.
North Korea's information committee said the congress began Friday morning, though more than 100 foreign journalists were not immediately allowed inside the April 25 House of Culture, draped in red party banners and flags. Instead, they waited outside for more than an hour before they were taken back to their hotels.
The congress promises to be the country's biggest political show in years, if not decades. Pyongyang, the capital, has been spruced up, and the masses are prepped for rallies. Many North Koreans gathered at Kim Il Sung Square to lay flowers.
Kim Jong Un, national founder Kim Il Sung's grandson, appears to be set to take center stage Friday, though North Korea has announced little more than the start date. One thing is for sure: the congress is shaping up to be a major opportunity for North Korea's young and still largely enigmatic leader to step out of the shadows of his father and grandfather and move more toward setting his own personal tone of leadership.
North Korea has allowed in droves of foreign media to make sure it gets a global audience for what the government clearly intends to be a showcase of national unity and stability under Kim, despite the increased criticism and tough new sanctions it is facing over its nuclear and missile programs.
To put its best face in front of the cameras, residents of the capital, Pyongyang, have been busy for months painting walls, fixing roads and rehearsing for mass rallies in mandatory demonstrations of loyalty. The last congress was used primarily as the stage to formally announce that Kim Il Sung's son, Kim Jong Il, would be his successor, but this congress is not expected to produce such dramatic news.
"After the 6th congress where we held Kim Jong Il as leader, now we are greeting the new era of Marshal Kim Jong Un," said Choe Un Su, a 75-year-old retiree. "... We should make the American soldiers get out of South Korea and under the leadership of our marshal we can open up the path of reunification."
"We are proud of our strong Korean nation," said Choe Jin A, a 22-year-old worker at a vegetable processing factory, "so we want everyone to know that we happy, and have launched satellites and have nuclear weapons, so we have nothing to worry about."
Hours before the ruling party's congress, the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency touted the country's military achievements that followed its nuclear test and long-range rocket launch earlier this year, including claimed advancements in developing nuclear warheads, missile re-entry vehicles and long-range rocket engines.
The KCNA said that the congress would be a historic celebration because the guidance of Kim Jong Un has elevated the country into a "nuclear, space power" and pushed into the "absolute prime" of its efforts to build a "thriving nation."
On paper, the congress is the party's highest-level decision-making body, though the real decisions are made by Kim and his inner circle. The delegates at the congress who will probably number in the thousands will be there more to endorse than debate.
But along with a heavy dose of North Korean-style pomp and theater, the gathering is likely to provide some insights into what Kim's priorities are and who he wants to promote into the positions he needs to carry them out.
"The significance of the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea is that it will be a turning point in our revolution," Professor Song Dong Won of North Korea's Academy of Social Sciences told an Associated Press television crew in Pyongyang. He said the congress would present "the successes of the last 30 years" and a "brilliant plan for the ultimate success of our revolution."
The last time North Korea's ruling party held a full congress was in 1980. It has held other big meetings since notably in 2010 and 2012. All six previous congresses came under Kim Il Sung, the late grandfather of Kim Jong Un and North Korea's founder who died in 1994.
The decision to hold a congress itself is telling Kim Jong Un has patterned himself more closely after his charismatic grandfather than Kim Jong Il, his notoriously reticent father, who almost never spoke in public.
In content, the congress is likely to be filled with praises of Kim Jong Un and his dual policy of developing North Korea's nuclear weapons while also building its domestic economy, a sort of guns-and-butter strategy he has championed but many outside economists believe is untenable because of the heavy price the nuclear program brings in international sanctions.
The country is now facing the toughest U.N. sanctions in 20 years, imposed after its fourth nuclear test, in January, and a rocket launch that followed soon after.
Another important feature of the congress may be who is appointed to, or dismissed from, key positions.
Many analysts expect Kim to replace the party's old guard with younger elites loyal to him. He may also formally elevate his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, to a position that would essentially make her his second-in-command. Believed to be in her late twenties, she is currently a vice department director at the party's Central Committee and frequently appears at her brother's public events, standing out amid elderly male officials.
There is also speculation that Kim Yong Nam, an 88-year-old member of the party's powerful five-man politburo Presidium, may be dismissed because of his age.
If so, he could also later lose his position as president of the Presidium of North Korea's parliament, which makes him the country's nominal head of state.