PYONGYANG, North Korea >> Senior members of North Korea’s ruling regime took to the stage on Saturday to praise their party and leader Kim Jong Un at their biggest meeting in 36 years, a much-touted and tightly choreographed event intended to demonstrate Kim is firmly in control despite his country’s deepening international isolation over its nuclear weapons program.
In something like a formal coronation for Kim, the ruling Workers’ Party congress was also expected to officially elect him to its top post.
According to the North’s state-run media, the agenda for the congress includes reviewing the work of the party’s Central Committee and Central Audit Commission, revising party rules, electing Kim to the top party post and installing a new central party leadership — though no major departures from the current lineup were expected.
Video of the proceedings broadcast on state television on the second day of the congress Saturday showed party officials reporting accomplishments in the military, science and economy as part of the first item on the agenda.
The decision to formally install — or, perhaps more accurately, reinstall — Kim at the top is a step along the lines of his late father and grandfather, who both held the title of general secretary of the Workers’ Party, and would 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. He could be re-elected to the same post or given 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 theater 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” step in a grand struggle pitting the North against “all manner of threats and desperate challenges by the imperialists” — meaning mostly the United States. 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.
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 that 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.
On Saturday morning, thousands of people continued practicing their moves in open areas around Pyongyang for the kind of mass celebrations that North Korea typically puts on for big events.
Younger students are usually involved in a torchlight parade at nighttime. Older students and workers normally take part in a daylight parade. For many years, both of these mass celebrations have been held in Kim Il Sung Square in central Pyongyang, which was locked down on Wednesday for a giant dress rehearsal.
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 to formally announce Kim Jong Il as the second heir to power in the North’s Kim family dynasty.
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.