PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea on Friday opened the first full congress of its ruling party since 1980, a major political event intended to showcase the country's stability and unity under young leader Kim Jong Un despite international criticism and tough new sanctions over the North's recent nuclear test and a slew of missile launches.
North Korea's information committee said the congress began Friday morning. More than 100 foreign journalists — brought in to give the event a global audience — were bused to the venue but were allowed to view it only from outside. No one but presumably the thousands of delegates and officials were allowed inside the ornate April 25 House of Culture, draped in red party banners and flags.
The congress promises to be the country's biggest political show in years, if not decades. Pyongyang, the capital, has been spruced up, and large groups of students and workers could be seen around the city as a light rain fell Friday. They were preparing for parades and rallies that are to be held in conjunction with the political theater going on inside the congress hall.
Kim Jong Un, grandson of national founder and "eternal president" Kim Il Sung, is officially presiding over the congress, though North Korea has announced precious few details of what it will entail.
The last time North Korea's ruling party held a full congress was in 1980, before Kim Jong Un was even born.
It has held other big meetings since — notably in 2010 and 2012 — but all six previous congresses came under Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. This congress provides a major opportunity for Kim Jong Un, who is still largely a mystery to the outside world and has yet to travel abroad or meet any world leaders, to step out of the shadows of his grandfather and father, Kim Jong Il.
Though it remained unclear Friday whether Kim Jong Un would address the congress or when, he has patterned himself more closely after his charismatic grandfather than Kim Jong Il, his notoriously reticent father, who almost never spoke in public.
The congress is expected to tout his successes on the nuclear front and promise economic improvements to boost the nation's standard of living — two themes that the state media hit hard as the congress approached. Mostly, however, the congress is about Kim himself, and putting him front and center in the eyes of the people and the party as the country's sole leader.
"Now we are greeting the new era of Marshal Kim Jong Un," said Choe Un Su, a 75-year-old retiree. "We should make the American soldiers get out of South Korea and under the leadership of our marshal we can open up the path of reunification."
Though some personnel shuffling and economic policy tweaks may be forthcoming, Pyongyang has made been clear it has no intention of backing down on its nuclear development program.
Hours before the ruling party's congress, the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency boasted of the country's military achievements that followed its nuclear test and long-range rocket launch earlier this year, 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 because the guidance of Kim Jong Un has elevated the country into a "nuclear, space power" and pushed into the "absolute prime" of its efforts to build a "thriving nation."
On paper, the congress is the party's highest-level decision-making body, though the real decisions are made by Kim and his inner circle. The delegates at the congress — who will probably number in the thousands — will be there more to endorse than debate.
But it will likely provide some insights into what Kim's priorities are, and who he wants to help him carry them out.
"The significance of the 7th Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea is that it will be a turning point in our revolution," professor Song Dong Won of North Korea's Academy of Social Sciences told an Associated Press television crew in Pyongyang. He said the congress would present "the successes of the last 30 years" and a "brilliant plan for the ultimate success of our revolution."
More than any major policy surprises, the congress is likely to be a forum for the expression of loyalty to Kim and of his dual guns-and-butter policy of developing North Korea's nuclear weapons while also building its domestic economy. That strategy has become his trademark, but many outside economists believe it can't work because of the heavy price the nuclear program brings in international sanctions.
Another important feature of the congress may be who gets titles, or loses them.
Many analysts expect Kim to replace the party's old guard with younger elites loyal to him.
He 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 20s, 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.