By James Pearson
PYONGYANG (Reuters) - Thousands of North Koreans practiced dance and parade routines on Thursday as the capital of the isolated nation prepared for a ruling party congress where leader Kim Jong Un is expected to consolidate power.
Pyongyang, a city of nearly 3 million, was scrubbed clean ahead of the opening of the meeting on Friday. Teams of elderly workers used shears to carefully cut the grass alongside main thoroughfares, and painted the base of trees a crisp, bright white.
Workers were putting finishing touches at the April 25 House of Culture in Pyongyang, a stone structure draped in red party flags and banners named after the founding anniversary of the country's army. A party congress has not been held for 36 years, and the event marks the political high point of Kim's four year-rule.
Thousands of delegates from around North Korea will attend, in what is likely to be a highly choreographed show of support for the young leader. Usually suspicious of foreigners, North Korea has invited scores of foreign journalists to cover the congress.
"We are very proud to have the respected Marshal Kim Jong Un as our great leader and we are very proud to hold the Seventh Party Congress," said Ji Eun Kyo, who works in a rice factory and was on her way to rehearse for a flower parade that is part of the festivities around the congress.
"People are actively participating in the event," said Ji, who was speaking to Reuters in the presence of one of the official guides assigned to manage the movements of foreign journalists.
Kim, believed to be 33, is expected to use the congress to formally declare North Korea a nuclear weapons state and adopt his "Byongjin" policy to push simultaneously for nuclear capability and economic development, further consolidating his power.
Byongjin follows Kim's father's Songun, or "military first," policy and his grandfather's Juche, the North's home-grown founding ideology that combines Marxism and extreme nationalism.
In the capital this week, groups of residents practiced loud chanting of patriotic slogans and thousands of school children in red hats and white shirts rehearsed performances for the event, under a constant hum of noise and music.
North Koreans have been engaged in a 70-day campaign of intensified work in the run-up to the congress, which has included a tidying up of the capital to welcome delegates.
ALL EYES ON YOUNG LEADER
Kim has himself kept out of the spotlight so far, last making a public appearance in state media on April 24, when he supervised the test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) a day earlier.
The congress is expected to last four or five days, with Kim likely to make an address on the first day to lay out his vision for the country he inherited after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011, said Cho Bong-hyun who heads research on North Korea's economy at IBK Bank in Seoul.
The second and third days are likely to be allocated for discussions based on Kim's remarks, with the party's Central Committee meeting to approve organizational and personnel matters, such as new appointments to the powerful Political Bureau, Cho said.
The young leader's tenure has been marked by frequent reshuffling within his inner circle, including purges and executions, most notably of his powerful uncle Jang Song Thaek in 2013.
Kim has also aggressively pursued nuclear weapons, with rival South Korea warning that it could conduct a fifth nuclear test at any time. Pyongyang was slapped with heavy U.N. sanctions in March following its fourth nuclear test in January.
North Korea under Kim has also allowed gray market commerce to play an increasing role in the economy, with rising consumption evident in the capital, where vehicle numbers are on the rise and shops carry a growing array of goods.
According to state media, delegates to the congress took in an opera on Wednesday - "Victory of the Revolution is in Sight" - at the Pyongyang Grand Theatre.
The last such congress, in 1980, included invited officials from countries with ties to North Korea, but officials in South Korea said they are not aware of similar invitations made to this year's event.
(This story crrects name of building in para 3)
(Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell; Writing by Jack Kim and Tony Munroe; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)