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(3rd LD) N. Korea opens first party congress in 36 years

All Headlines 22:24 May 06, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with more info, photo throughout)

SEOUL, May 6 (Yonhap) -- North Korea opened its first party congress in more than three decades on Friday as the country's leader Kim Jong-un is seeking to further cement his power amid speculations over Pyongyang's possible nuclear test.

The congress of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) came as North Korea was slapped with tougher sanctions by the U.N. Security Council in March over its fourth nuke test and long-range rocket launch early this year.

North Korea kicked off its rare party congress at the April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang, the first in 36 years, according to foreign media reports. The North's state media has yet to unveil details on the event.

The event is the first party congress since October 1980 and also the first under the current leader, who assumed power in late 2011 following the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong-il.

"North Korea appears to seek to establish the socialist party-centered system and further consolidate the Kim Jong-un regime through the party congress," Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman at Seoul's unification ministry, said at a regular press briefing on Wednesday.

The party congress, which may last for three to four days, is presumed to have started with an opening speech by the North's young leader, which will serve as a gauge for his policy directions. North Korea's state media has not yet made public its leader's keynote address.

The gathering also involves the WPK's party committee's lengthy session to review accomplishments and discuss future plans. On the final day of the event, it is expected to elect new members to the party central committee.

Analysts said that the gathering will serve as a venue to highlight Kim's one-man leadership, reshuffle top officials and unveil his vision for the defense and economic sectors.

"More than reaffirming his grip on power, it will serve as a coronation of the Kim Jong-un era," said Ken Gause, a senior analyst on North Korea at CNA Corp. in the United States.

The party congress was held amid high tensions as Pyongyang is threatening to conduct another nuclear test and launch of a ballistic missile in defiance of stronger U.N. sanctions.

Since March, Pyongyang has fired off projectiles and ballistic missiles, warning that it is ready to carry out nuclear strikes against Seoul and Washington.

The North's leader has warned that his country is ready to conduct a nuclear warhead test and launch ballistic missiles "in a short time."

Pyongyang made three botched attempts to launch its Musudan intermediate-range missiles last month, a move which analysts say was aimed at building up the country's accomplishments in the run-up to the party congress.

The North's official Korean Central News Agency on Friday listed a set of the leaders' feats on its nuclear and missile programs including what it called the successful development of a small nuclear warhead which can be fitted onto a missile.

Experts said that at the congress Kim is expected to defend his signature policy of developing nuclear weapons in tandem with boosting its moribund economy, commonly known as the "byeongjin" policy.

"There is a possibility that North Korea could adjust or refine the byeongjin policy," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

Analysts said that the North may reaffirm the dual-track policy as the WPK's official party line.

The current leader's father Kim Jong-il advocated a military-first, or "songun," policy, highlighting the role of the military, but the young leader has shifted his focus to the WPK while promoting the byeongjin policy.

In the face of tougher sanctions and pressure, the North had been pressing its people to work harder under a "70-day campaign of loyalty" and forcing them to offer money to the regime ahead of the major party event.

"Ordinary North Koreans are increasingly expressing complaints as the regime's labor mobilization has hampered their economic activities," said a government official.

Pyongyang appears to be holding the political gathering without the attendance of high-profile foreign guests, since countries including China are presumed to have shunned it as the U.N. sanctions take hold, according to a Seoul official.

A total of 177 delegates from 118 countries including China and Russia attended the sixth party congress held in 1980, South Korea's unification ministry said.


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