North Korean leader looks to consolidate power at congress

CNN —  

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s mission to turn his nation into a full-fledged nuclear state is likely to receive a huge boost this weekend during its biggest political event in 36 years.

The 7th Congress of Workers’ Party began Friday in Pyongyang, the nation’s capital. In his 15-minute opening speech, Kim touted the country’s weapons development including a nuclear test, saying they had “elevated our respect to the world and enemies.”

The leader’s praise over the recent nuclear test caused concern from both the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his South Korean counterpart Yun Byung-se, who spoke on Saturday over the issue, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Kim also said during his opening remarks that the congress would review the party’s “brilliant successes” and put together tasks to “keep ushering in a great golden age of socialist construction.”

A more grandiose title for the supreme leader and an impending shakeup of North Korea’s party leadership are expected. That would leave Kim fewer internal obstacles on his quest to keep North Korea on a path of aggressively developing nuclear weapons and attempting to improve its struggling economy.

About 3,000 party members and more than 100 international media outlets have poured in for this once-in-a-generation political gathering, officials told CNN.

The last congress was held in 1980 and resulted in North Korea’s founder and the current leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung elevating his son Kim Jong Il to No. 2 in the party.

Congress sets agenda

Details of the gathering had been kept secret from the foreign press and the North Korean public until a Friday evening news bulletin. Pyongyang-based KCTV, the official television mouthpiece of the government, broke into regular programming with a special report unveiling key objectives of the historic gathering of the reclusive nation’s ruling elite.

It’s unclear how many days the congress will last. But the agenda has been mapped out:

• Electing the supreme leader to an even more powerful position than the one Kim holds (his power is already nearly absolute);

• Electing new party leadership to replace members of Kim’s inner circle purged for disloyalty and branded “evil” by the state, and;

• Revealing the findings of the party’s disciplinary and investigative committee.

CNN looks inside North Korea

North Korean elections are always unanimous, and political dissent and disloyalty are not tolerated. The 2013 execution of Kim’s uncle Jang Sung Taek illustrates this reality.

Flouting the international community

The crowd burst into applause as Kim entered the room flanked by the two most senior party members – representing both the old and new schools of leadership. Kim Yong Nam has been greeting foreign leaders as the nominal head of state since 1998; he’s had Politburo status since 1978. Hwang Pyong So is the second-highest military official in North Korea, appointed by Kim in 2013.

Kim’s new handpicked inner circle will clear the path for the young leader to continue provocative military activities that have triggered some of the harshest U.N. sanctions imposed against North Korea and irritated his most powerful ally, China.

The sole remaining symbol of cooperation with South Korea – the Kaesong Industrial Complex near the demilitarized zone – has also shut down during his tenure.

No Chinese officials were invited to the party congress, according to Chinese state media.

Kim appears determined to project the image of a self-reliance as his impoverished country defies international condemnation by chasing its nuclear ambitions. At the same time, Kim has promised to take measures to improve the living standards of North Koreans. To outside observers, the two goals seem contradictory and implausible.

Meanwhile on Friday, the North Korea-focused think tank, 38 North suggested that Pyongyang “may be preparing for a nuclear test in the near future” after analyzing satellite imagery. It reported “low level of activity” of vehicles spotted at a testing site, believed to be the Command Center, that are not usually there.

“While the historical record is incomplete, it appears that vehicles are not often seen here except during preparations for a test,” wrote Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.

In January, Kim ordered what was claimed to be a hydrogen bomb test on the same week of his birthday. It was followed a month later by a satellite launch, which led the United States and its allies to push for a new round of strong sanctions aimed at halting the regime’s nuclear and missile programs.

01:50 - Source: CNN
CNN's look inside North Korea

Those sanctions have made it difficult to improve the economy, another major issue facing Kim.

Kim trying to ‘consolidate’ his power

During his appearance, Kim honored the nation’s top figures who have died since the last party congress was held. He thanked his people for their “70-day battle of loyalty,” a state-mandated work campaign that had North Koreans arriving at work by 5:30 a.m. daily and working late leading up to Friday’s congress.

CNN looks inside North Korea

“The goal of this congress is really to consolidate Kim’s hold on power,” said Mike Chinoy, author of “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.”

“During the rule of Kim Jong Il the focus was very much on ‘military first,’ the armed forces had even more influence than before. Kim Jong Un has been shifting power back to the ruling Korean Workers’ Party.”

Doing so, along with nuclear tests, may enable Kim to reduce the amount resources spent maintaining a traditional army, Chinoy said.

At least one citizen told CNN he doesn’t fear the added sanctions.

“We’ve been under heavy sanctions since the end of the Korean War,” he said. “We’re not afraid of stronger sanctions because we’re used to them and we’ve survived.”

Speculation on reasons for the congress

CNN’s KJ Kwon, James Griffiths, Joel Williams, Joe Sterling and Madison Park and journalist Sol Han contributed to this report.