Kim Jong-un Seeks to Cement Power at First North Korean Congress in 36 Years

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When , the North Korean leader, arrives at the seventh congress of the governing Workers’ Party on Friday, he will essentially be attending his own coronation. Meeting for the first time in a generation, the congress — in theory, the country’s highest decision-making body — will cement his status as supreme leader.

It will also elect a new central committee, which in turn appoints the party’s Politburo and presidium. Those posts are expected to be filled with a new generation of loyalists whom Mr. Kim has already been elevating through purges and reshuffles, analysts said.

By far the most interesting aspect of the meeting will be Mr. Kim’s promotion of his so-called byungjin policy, which calls for simultaneously achieving two seemingly incompatible goals: a nuclear arsenal and economic development.

Mr. Kim has accelerated ’s pursuit of nuclear warheads and the ballistic missiles capable of delivering them. As a result, his country has come under more international sanctions, which has complicated what he defined as his top priority in a New Year’s speech in January: improving living conditions for his people.
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Analysts said Mr. Kim’s byungjin policy would be reaffirmed as the official party line, though reviving the North’s moribund economy while the country is under sanctions is a difficult prospect. He has said the congress will present “an ambitious blueprint” for his nation.

“The congress is an occasion for Kim Jong-un to officially declare at home and abroad that his era has arrived,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “He will boast about his nuclear weapons and the security they provide as his biggest achievement, and then will exhort his country to focus on rebuilding the economy.”

Some analysts said that after the meeting, Mr. Kim may try to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula as a way to encourage China to offer more aid.

But others remained skeptical. “Kim Jong-un will never stop nuclear weapons development,” said Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. “He does not consider economic reform without nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Kim’s audience will include foreign journalists invited to cover the event, allowing the world a rare glimpse of the supreme leader’s vision for his impoverished yet nuclear-armed country.

During the last party congress, held in 1980, Mr. Kim’s grandfather, the North’s founding president, Kim Il-sung, spoke for five hours on his party’s achievements, frequently interrupted by applauding delegates. At the time, North Korea still enjoyed a degree of economic and military advantage over South Korea.

But things have changed. South Korea’s economy surged ahead, while millions of North Koreans died of hunger during a famine in the 1990s. Refugees fled the failed socialist paradise in the North, many ending up in the capitalist South.

Still, North Korea stuck to its command economy, even when the Soviet bloc disintegrated and its communist neighbor, China, adopted market reforms and prospered.

Mr. Kim’s father, who came to power in 1994, adopted an emergency “military first” rule, relying on the People’s Army as the main governing tool, and never convened a party congress. He sought nuclear weapons in defiance of United Nations sanctions, telling his people that the weapons would protect their independence and dignity from “the American imperialists.”

Mr. Kim was still in his late 20s when the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011 catapulted him to the top of the secretive regime. Outside analysts who had predicted openness and diplomatic compromise under his young leadership — Mr. Kim had spent time in Switzerland as a teenager — had a surprise in store.
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The young man had more than 100 senior party officials or generals, including his own uncle, executed, while he also let the Workers’ Party regain its influence on the military. Thousands more were demoted or banished. He engineered purges with such a frequency and ruthlessness that President Park Geun-hye of South Korea called Mr. Kim’s rule a “reign of terror.”

His key selling point domestically has been his image as a strong young leader able to arm his country with nuclear weapons. In recent months, North Korea has tried to bolster that image by reporting success in a flurry of tests of technologies needed to acquire a nuclear strike capability, including the test of what it called a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

North Korea conducted the last two of its four nuclear tests under Mr. Kim, including one on Jan. 6. The North also placed two satellites into orbit, the most recent in February, by using rockets widely believed to be a cover for developing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

North Korea’s media did not report what South Korean and United States officials called three successive failures in launching its Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile in recent weeks.

Jeong Joon-hee, a South Korean government spokesman, said he suspected the North Korean military pressed ahead with the doomed tests to help glorify Mr. Kim’s image ahead of the party congress.

Such nationalism has proved popular among young North Koreans, said Mr. Chang, whose Institute for Peace and Unification Studies has been tracking public opinion inside the North by interviewing recent defectors.

“He is definitely more popular among young people than old,” Mr. Chang said.

“Youth” has been a defining key word ahead of the party congress, said Park Ju-hwa and Kim Kap-sik, researchers at the government-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.

They analyzed more than 1,500 articles the main North Korean party newspaper Rodong Sinmun has carried about the congress, and found “youth” cropping up repeatedly in various political slogans, like “youth power.”

“Kim Jong-un sought to dispel anxiety over his young leadership and justify a generational change” he is introducing through the party congress, the researchers wrote in a joint paper.

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