North Korea Congress: things to watch

This picture taken and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 3, 2016 shows participants for the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) arriving in Pyongyang. After four years of top-level reshuffles, purges and executions, Kim Jong-Un will formally cement his unassailable status as North Korea's supreme leader at a landmark ruling party congress this week. / AFP PHOTO / KCNA / KNS / - South Korea OUT / REPUBLIC OF KOREA OUT ---EDITORS NOTE--- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO/KCNA VIA KNS" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. / KNS/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

North Korea, the world’s last Stalinist state, has invited the world’s media to Pyongyang this week to witness an important Party Congress that has not been held in 36 years, since before supreme leader Kim Jong Un was born.

Here are a few things to look out for when the Congress opens on Friday:

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Parades and pageantry

The 7th Congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea is expected to be accompanied by an enormous spectacle, including mass choreographed performances, appearances by the “Young Marshall” Kim Jong Un and a military parade through the capital Pyongyang. The event is intended to present the reclusive nation as strong, independent and glorious and to legitimise the absolute rule of the 33-year-old Mr Kim. In the words of Korea expert Andrei Lankov, the pomp and pageantry “will be quite like watching the mating season of dinosaurs — it is a curiosity you don’t see anywhere else any more but it won’t necessarily tell us very much”.

Signs of reform

Some North Korea watchers are hopeful Mr Kim will use the Congress to announce overarching reforms to the country’s moribund economy, which relies on aid, particularly from neighbouring China. Malnutrition plagues many of the country’s 25m population but markets have sprung up across the country and a new “middle class” with small amounts of expendable income has also emerged. Some analysts are hopeful the Congress will legitimise these realities. Others, including Mr Lankov, do not expect any concrete announcements to be made at the Congress itself but almost everyone believes changes are likely to happen regardless as Mr Kim moves towards the “reform and opening” path followed by China starting from the late 1970s.

Party over military

The pomp and pageantry ‘will be quite like watching the mating season of dinosaurs — a curiosity you don’t see anywhere else any more

– Andrei Lankov, Korea expert

One explanation for Mr Kim’s decision to hold the Congress now is his intention to boost the power and legitimacy of the Worker’s party established by his grandfather Kim Il Sung. The last Party Congress was held in 1980 and the highlight was Kim Il Sung’s announcement of his son, Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un’s father), as his designated successor. When Kim Jong Il took power after his father’s death in 1994, he made a pact with the North Korean military that placed him at its head and downgraded the party’s power within the ruling structure. Since taking power in 2011, Kim Jong Un has struggled to shore up his legitimacy and assert control over the military. One way for him to do this is by returning the Worker’s party to a pre-eminent position within the political hierarchy.

Appointments and titles

The Congress, which was originally supposed to be held every five years, is supposed to elect members of the party’s leading institutions, although in practice decisions are made beforehand by the leadership and every motion is approved unanimously. The Congress also has the power to amend the party charter and define how the party relates to the country’s government, society, economy, military and culture. Analysts expect many younger officials will be appointed to replace the old guard of the party as part of Kim Jong Un’s efforts to boost support within the power structure.

Missile launches

North Korea has stepped up efforts to build a nuclear-armed ballistic missile that can reach the US. In January, Pyongyang claimed it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb that could “wipe out the whole of the US territory”. In recent weeks, South Korean officials say the North has held several failed rocket launches in an apparent setback for Pyongyang’s ambitions. It is possible that more tests could be held during or immediately after the Congress since the nuclear deterrent is a central element in Mr Kim’s claims to legitimacy.

Foreign relations

Any sign of a change in Pyongyang’s relations with its neighbour China will be watched by Washington and the rest of the region. The two countries used to refer to their relationship as being “as close as lips and teeth” but in recent years China has grown increasingly frustrated by North Korea’s belligerence and its insistence on developing nuclear weapons. Beijing is vocally opposed to this nuclear programme and has endorsed sanctions against the Kim regime but the Chinese government is also wary of doing anything that could prompt the disintegration of North Korea and potentially lead to a humanitarian disaster on its shared border.

International media coverage

With many of the world’s top media organisations visiting Pyongyang at the invitation of the North Korean government, readers should expect a barrage of global media attention over the next week. Since all foreign media activity in the country is tightly controlled and journalists are not permitted to venture anywhere without their official “minders”, these reports are likely to be limited in their ability to portray the true situation in the country.

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