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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hails nuclear progress at congress

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hailed his country's recent nuclear test to uproarious applause as he convened the first full congress of its ruling party since 1980, an event intended to showcase the North's stability and unity in the face of tough international sanctions and deepening isolation.

Foreign journalists invited into country to cover congress, but not allowed inside venue

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un addresses the congress in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Friday. (KRT via Associated Press )

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hailed his country's recent nuclear test to uproarious applause as he convened the first full congress of its ruling party since 1980, an event intended to showcase the North's stability and unity in the face of tough international sanctions and deepening isolation.

Kim, who stood to read his opening remarks before more than 3,400 delegates, was interrupted repeatedly by cheers and applause as he laid out accomplishments since he took power in 2011 — including what the government says was its first hydrogen bomb test in January.

Along with being high political theatre, filled with pomp and ceremony, the congress is a major milestone for the young North Korean leader, who was not yet born when the previous congress was held 36 years ago.

Kim wore a black dress suit, grey tie and horn-rimmed glasses that resembled the ones worn by his late grandfather and North Korean founder, Kim Il-sung.

He praised the January nuclear test and a February satellite launch, seen by outside governments as a banned test of dual-use missile technology, saying they demonstrated the nation's "dignity and power at the highest level."

He also praised the outcome of a recently completed 70-day "loyalty campaign," in which workers nationwide were called upon to put in extra hours to boost productivity.

Restaurant diners watch North Korean leader Kim Jong-un deliver a speech in a broadcast of the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea on local television on Friday. (Wong Maye-E/Associated Press)

To make sure the event gets global attention, North Korea has brought in a large number of journalists from around the world. But they were shown only the outside of the venue as the congress began before being bused off to a wire factory.

To put its best face before the cameras, the city has been spruced up with freshly painted walls and lots of posters and flags. As a light rain fell Friday, large groups of students and workers could be seen around the capital preparing for parades and rallies that will be held in conjunction with the congress.

North Korea has held other big meetings of its ruling Workers' Party since the 1980 congress — notably in 2010 and 2012 — but all six previous congresses came under "eternal president" Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

This one could provide a major opportunity for Kim Jong-un, who has yet to travel abroad or meet any world leaders, to step out of the shadows of his grandfather and father.

Foreign journalists were allowed to approach people on the street for interviews under the watchful eye of government minders.

"This is a conference with Kim Jong-un as leader," Song Son Hyang, a 25-year-old factory worker, told CBC News. "It's his first congress, so it's more meaningful to us."  

"All the Korean people including me, we're really proud of having this kind of congress," said Choi Hyok Chol, a 25-year-old student. "We'll show to the world through this congress that Korea will move faster and get stronger."

When CBC News asked Song and Choi about the international community's reaction to North Korea, both praised Kim Jong-un. 

Song Son Hyang, a 25-year-old factory worker, told CBC News she is proud that North Korea 'has become a great power these days.' Foreign journalists conducted interviews with people on the street in Pyongyang while government minders watched. (Tracy Seeley/CBC News)

"Actually, our country has become a great power these days," Song said. "We are really proud of ourselves, so I'm very happy."

"No matter whether there are sanctions or no sanctions, we are not afraid of that," Choi said. "As long as there is leader Kim Jong-un, we are fully sure that we will surely achieve our goal, our real dream, of building a powerful state in the near future."  

Kim Jong-un has patterned himself more closely after his charismatic grandfather than his notoriously reticent father, Kim Jong-il, who almost never spoke in public. Kim Il-sung spoke on the first day of the 1980 congress — though Friday's brief opening speech came nowhere near the five-hour address given by Kim Il-sung.

The government has built up the congress for months, but has not announced an itinerary, or even when the congress is to end. Kim Jong-un's speech wasn't made public until late Friday night, when it was broadcast on the television news.

'We’ll show to the world through this congress that Korea will move faster and get stronger. Single hearted, united around Kim Jong-un,' said Choi Hyok Chol, a 25-year-old student interviewed by foreign journalists in Pyongyang. (Tracy Seeley/CBC News)

The congress is the party's highest-level decision-making body, though the real decisions are made by Kim and his inner circle.

So far, the focus has been on praise for Kim and his successes on the nuclear front, along with improvements since he assumed power to boost the nation's standard of living — themes the media hit hard as the congress approached and trumpeted again loudly on Friday.

The congress will also be coloured by the anti-U.S. bravado that marks so much of North Korea's worldview — that it is an underdog forced to pursue nuclear weapons in defence against the Goliath that is Washington.

As Kim's mention of the H-bomb test suggests, North Korea's government has made clear it has no intention of backing down in its nuclear development program — and instead wants to be recognized as a nuclear power.

Hours before the start of the congress, the state-run Korean Central News Agency boasted of the country's military achievements, including claimed advancements in developing nuclear warheads, missile re-entry vehicles and long-range rocket engines.

It said the congress would be a historic celebration of how Kim Jong-un's guidance has elevated the country into a "nuclear, space power" and pushed it into the "absolute prime" of its efforts to build a "thriving nation."

The gathering will likely also provide some insights into what Kim's other priorities are and who he wants to help him carry them out.

Delegates applaud during the congress in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Friday. (KRT via Associated Press)

The economy is certainly high on Kim's list, but his "byongjin" guns-and-butter policy of developing North Korea's nuclear weapons while also building its domestic economy is seen by many outside economists as unlikely to succeed because of the heavy price the nuclear program brings in international sanctions that keep the country's economy from growing.

Kim is expected to replace the party's old guard with younger elites loyal to him and may formally elevate his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, to a position that would essentially make her his second-in-command.

Believed to be in her late twenties, she is currently a vice department director at the party's Central Committee and frequently appears at her brother's public events, standing out amid elderly male officials.

With files from CBC News

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