- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2016

North Korea will open Friday its once-in-a-generation party congress, a five-day spectacle of political theatrics in Pyongyang, where young dictator Kim Jong-un is expected take center stage for a final consolidation his power in the isolated and nuclear-armed nation.

While the Workers’ Party has put on other major celebrations in recent years, the coming days will mark the first time since 1980 that it has held an official congress — the occurrence of which coincides with a rising tide of regional tensions since Pyongyang carried out its forth nuclear test in January.

With that as a backdrop, thousands of delegates from around North Korea are streaming toward the capital city for what analysts say will be the biggest and most highly choreographed show of support for the 33-year-old Mr. Kim since he first inherited power following the 2011 death of his father, Kim Jong-il.

Despite the North Korean regime’s notorious suspicion of foreigners, especially international media, the government in Pyongyang has invited scores of outside journalists to cover the congress — only the seventh such event since the Workers’ Party was founded in 1946.

But while international reporters and camera crews have been in Pyongyang during recent days, the comments gathered from North Korean voices have come across as scripted, if only singularly celebratory and nationalistic.

“The significance of the Seventh 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.”

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Residents of the capital have been busy for months painting walls, fixing roads and rehearsing for mass rallies in mandatory demonstrations of loyalty. The congress comes after a 70-day “loyalty drive” in which everyone from coal miners to restaurant workers were called upon to put in extra hours to increase productivity as a show of devotion to Mr. Kim and the party.

Friday’s proceedings will open with a major speech by Mr. Kim that will be followed by several days of party deliberations and high-level personnel appointments.

Analysts say the young dictator in his remarks can be expected to hammer the U.S. and its allies and to formally declare North Korea as nuclear-armed state.

But he’ll likely also announce the official adoption of his so-called “Byongjin” policy of pushing simultaneously for nuclear capability and economic development — an approach Mr. Kim has promoted since coming to power nearly five years ago.

Mr. Kim has aggressively pursued nuclear weapons, and South Korea has warned that the North could conduct a fifth nuclear test at any time. Last month saw the United Nations slap heavy new sanctions on Pyongyang in response to the January test.

Byongjin, meanwhile, follows the Workers’ Party’s so-called “Songun,” or “military first” policy, which became a signature of Mr. Kim’s late father and builds from North Korea’s homegrown Juche ideology of Marxism combined with extreme nationalism that was put into place some 60 years ago by Mr. Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung.

Away from the congress’ sloganeering and theatrics, regional experts say something much deeper also will be at play — and it stems from the reality that Mr. Kim’s tenure so far has been marked by frequent reshuffling, purges and executions of officials around him.

The most notable example came in 2013, when Mr. Kim was reported to have ordered the execution of his own uncle, Jang Song-thaek, the former vice-chairman of the National Defense Commission and the regime’s then-second in command.

A more recent example occurred just two months ago, when Mr. Kim reportedly ordered the execution of Gen. Ri Yong-gil of the Korean People’s Army.

In the lead-up to the congress, Mr. Kim has appointed a number of hawkish hard-liners to key national security posts within the party, according to a recent analysis by 38 North, a Pyongyang-focused website produced by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

The hard-liners have included party cadres and military officers in support of a more belligerent policy toward South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, said the analysis, which suggested that Mr. Kim was engaging in a kind of sophisticated political calculus by making the appointments ahead of the party congress.

“The gathering is likely to establish a more prominent role for the Party, greater civilian control over state resources, and stronger Party control over the North’s armed forces,” said the analysis, published in February. “Therefore, Kim Jong-un seems to be practicing inclusive politics by letting military officials migrate into the Party power structure and putting hawks at the head of the military.”

Mr. Kim’s moves may have been designed to predetermine the make-up of the party’s central committee, which will elected during the congress and will subsequently pick the elite politburo that stands as the dictator’s main base of internal power.

Analysts say the importance of who ultimately ends up on the central committee cannot be overstated.

“With the election of a new central committee I think we’re going to have a better sense of who is in the upper echelons of power in North Korea and who is no longer there,” said James Person, a historian focused on North Korea at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

During a panel discussion this week about the party Congress, Mr. Person added that “you don’t have anything else as important in the political schedule of North Korea.”

The last such congress, in 1980, included invited officials from countries with ties to North Korea, but officials in South Korea said they are not aware of similar invitations made to this year’s event, which is also a cultural highlight for the national political ultra-elite.

North Korean state media on Wednesday as reporting that delegates to the congress were taking in an opera — “Victory of the Revolution is in Sight” — at the Pyongyang Grand Theatre.

Many analysts expect Mr. 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.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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