North Korea prepares for 1st ruling party congress in 36 years

Kim Jong-un looks to cement his power — and perhaps set off another nuclear test — as the first meeting in his lifetime of North Korea's ruling party gathers in Pyongyang.

Latest in series of pivotal events including nuclear test and new sanctions

Inside North Korea | The Eve of the Congress

7 years ago
Duration 1:55
Nahlah Ayed is in North Korea ahead of tomorrow's congress, where there's a big push to show a gentler, inwardly-focused country.

It is officially only the year 105 in Pyongyang, and events just in its first half could have a significant impact on life in this isolated country for a generation.

North Korea is still firmly attached to its "self-reliance" or "Juche" philosophy, for which the calendar that is used only here is named. Year one was 1912, when the founder of the nation — and of the self-reliance philosophy — Kim Il-sung was born.

More than a century later, his grandson Kim Jong-un is the leader, and he kicked off Juche 105 with a nuclear test. That set off a round of condemnations and unleashed the UN's toughest sanctions against the country yet.

Since then, Kim has also presided over several missile tests.

Now, close to midway through the year, Kim is leading a political gathering that watchers speculate could herald a change in course, or, maybe the year's second nuclear test. Or possibly both.

Whatever is planned for the first Korea Workers' Party Congress in 36 years, opening on Friday, it is a pivotal enough week for the country to warrant the invitation of dozens of journalists to a city busy with preparations.

People are seen walking with flowers near Liberation Street in Pyongyang, where many are expected to take part in celebrations this week. North Korea is putting its best foot forward as it prepares for the first congress of its ruling party in 36 years, which could set the tone for the country for a generation to come. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

'No movies?'

The welcome we received at the gleaming Pyongyang Sunan International Airport gave little hint of the strained relations the country currently has with much of the world. Nor did it give a sense of the mistrust many people here have of foreigners in general, and journalists with cameras in particular.

A courteous immigration officer smiled and quickly stamped passports. And despite a power outage that briefly stopped the luggage carousel, the customs officers were good humoured, even joking at times.

"No movies?" one of them asked me, pointing with an only-half-joking smile to a hard drive that had to go through a secondary check. All books — even a Korean-English dictionary — and all cellphones had to also be vetted before being allowed into the country.

Government-appointed guides, speaking in languages ranging from Italian to Japanese — and virtually all wearing red lapel pins depicting the two previous leaders of the Kim family — are constantly with the journalists. Like all foreign visitors here, none of us can leave our hotels unless accompanied by a guide.

At the airport, and in the tours they have offered so far, it is clear the city is expending considerable effort into putting its best face forward.

Extra police in blue uniforms and orange batons now patrol some of the main arteries. Youth practised a routine with red flags near the Arch of Triumph in central Pyongyang. Adults carried bunches of red and pink flowers that officials said would play some part in the celebration of the meeting.

New flags flutter on the wide boulevards: the blue and red of the Democratic People's Republic, as well as the red and yellow of the Korea Workers' Party, which features a hammer and sickle — and a brush, to represent intellectuals.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, seen here in an undated photo released earlier this year, is expected to give a policy speech at the Workers' Party Congress that reinforces his own brand of the country's 'self-reliance.' (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

Meeting to cement Kim's power

The 7th Korea Workers' Party Congress is the first since Kim took over as leader. The last was held three years before he was even born.

"With this congress we'll show to the world that all the Korean people are similarly united around Kim Jong-un," said Song Myong Hui, a mother and a housewife who said she will be tracking the events starting Friday on television.

"We'll demonstrate that we will develop further and get stronger in the future. That's why it's very important."

Many watchers believe that the gathering, which is the highest authority in the party, will help Kim cement his power and shuffle its upper ranks in favour of younger, more world-savvy members.

Kim will be the centre of attention, and is likely to give a policy speech that reinforces his own brand of the country's "self-reliance," and could set the tone for the next few years.

If Kim chooses to shift focus further to the economy, for example, as some have suggested — and as he promised when he became leader — the gathering provides a convenient platform. It offers the same should Kim choose to set off another nuclear test as the world media watches up close.

Another test would be the third under his leadership, and fifth for the country overall. The first was conducted under his father, Kim Jong-il, in 2006. 

The country's foreign minister, however, seemed to suggest in media comments in New York last week that the economy might be a higher priority.

"The first thing is to advance the pace of economic building for a powerful nation," said Ri Su-Young. "The second is to improve the people's living standards … and the third to strengthen our national defence capabilities."

The congress will 'show to the world' that North Koreans are united behind Kim Jong-un, according to Song Myong Hui, a mother and a housewife in Pyongyang. (Pascal Leblond/CBC)


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.