Kim Jong Un Champions Nuclear Arms at North Korean Congress

North Korean Leader Readies His Political Coronation
  • Ruler opts for a Western-style suit over the usual Mao outfit
  • `Thrilling explosion' of nuclear bomb called a prelude

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un touted the success of his country’s nuclear program in a speech opening the first congress of the ruling party since 1980, while also asserting the country is making economic progress under his rule.

Repeatedly interrupted by frenetic applause and shouts of "hurrah," Kim said that the ruling Workers’ Party had become “invincible and strong,” in a speech to the gathering in Pyongyang that deviated little from past rhetoric about North Korea’s might. Most surprising may have been his outfit: a dark Western-style suit and tie, rather than the Mao suits he’s worn in most public appearances.

“Our military and people achieved the great success of testing the first hydrogen bomb and launching the earth-observation satellite Kwangmyongsong-4 in this year of the seventh congress,” Kim said, referring to the object that North Korea sent into orbit in February with a long-range rocket. The launch drew condemnation from the United Nations Security Council, which viewed it as a test of ballistic missile technology.

The “thrilling explosion” of a nuclear bomb opened this year, Kim said, calling the January test a “sublime prelude to miracles” in improving the arms technology needed to defend the country and uphold its dignity.

North Korea may be preparing for another detonation, 38 North, a Johns Hopkins University-affiliated website said. Commercial satellite imagery shows “low levels of activity” at the test site, with vehicles spotted on May 5 near the command center, it said.

The Security Council in March added to sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear program, including mandatory inspection of all cargo going into or out of the country. Still, Kim said he would continue development, pledging to detonate a nuclear warhead that could fit atop a ballistic missile.

QuickTake: North Korea Defies World (Again) With Nuclear Intent

In the speech, aired in a special broadcast on North Korean state television at 10 p.m. local time, Kim said North Korea has made “the biggest achievements and highest leaps” in all sectors of its economy thanks to a nationwide campaign to boost production this year.

But he offered few details of his economic program and no indication of whether he would continue his state economy’s tiptoeing into the realm of private enterprise.

“He’s implemented some reforms that have paid off and he now feels he has to recalibrate the country’s principle ideology to explain those changes,” Koh Yu Hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said before the speech. “But drastically changing course won’t be easy because no matter how good change is, you don’t want to make it if it threatens your third-generation dynasty.”

Power to Promote

Since becoming supreme commander with the death of his father in late 2011, Kim has built his grip on power with purges of senior officials and other provocative actions, including two nuclear tests.

Ordering the Workers’ Party to hold a full congress for the first time under his leadership gives him the chance to set out his agenda as well as promote or demote officials to shore up his inner circle. What is said and done in Pyongyang during the rest of the gathering -- the end date isn’t known -- may indicate how serious he is about economic change and whether that may be trumped by his desire to preserve control.

While the meeting provides a peek at Kim’s standing domestically, the absence of foreign delegations highlights his increased diplomatic isolation. When his grandfather Kim Il Sung hosted the last congress, North Korea had a better-functioning economy and the event attracted officials from more than 100 nations. This year, no foreign officials were scheduled to attend, and the economy is a fraction of South Korea’s.

Kim said that more than 3,000 delegates were attending the congress. He was seated between Kim Yong Nam and Hwang Pyong So, the other two members of the Politburo standing committee.

Songs of Praise

A group of about 130 foreign journalists allowed into the country for the event weren’t permitted to cover the congress itself. The closest they got was about 300 yards from the building where it took place.

The congress, which opened on a cold and overcast day in Pyongyang, caps efforts to portray Kim as the inheritor of his father’s and grandfather’s mantle, with songs sung in praise of him and his exhortations to work harder posted on billboards around the city.

While Kim’s portrait isn’t featured alongside theirs on building facades or in classrooms, he appears in numerous photographs, offering the “on-site guidance” the previous leaders were known for -- whether it be over a nuclear bomb, at a basketball court or in a computer classroom.

‘Great Man’

“It is not easy to say in a few words, but our leader is a great man,” said Kim Su Ryon, a 31-year-old whose job is to distribute state rations of food and other goods in her neighborhood. “From the founding of the Workers’ Party to now, our great leaders have always loved the people and improved their lives.”

The unofficial economy, known as “jangmadang,” has shared the burden of feeding the population of 25 million. Kim has allowed greater private investment and let farmers take away more surplus production, according to analysts with contacts in the country.

Having pledged to never let his people “tighten the belts again,” Kim nonetheless shares the paranoia of prior North Korean leaders that markets may be a conduit for outside information and help sow doubts among locals on the legitimacy of his rule.

“At the end of the day, what really matters is to maintain that grip on power,” said Lee Ji Sue, a professor of North Korean studies at Seoul’s Myongji University. “Power in North Korea is private property because it’s been inherited and Kim doesn’t want to risk losing it.”

Kim has purged officials including his uncle and one-time deputy Jang Song Thaek, who sought closer business ties with China. While mismanagement, graft and a lack of outside aid has added to the economic misery for North Koreans, dynastic rule has led the Kim family to tightly control information in a way that also restricts trade.

Illicit Markets

As a result, hundreds of illicit markets have sprung up in North Korea and people rely on them for food, according to academic and government studies based on interviews with defectors. Goods shipped from China include memory sticks and CDs of South Korean and Western soap operas and movies, sought even by members of the elite.

It’s unclear whether officials will use this party congress to address major changes in the economy, but similar events were used by Communist neighbors China and the then-Soviet Union to roll out major plans. Deng Xiaoping announced an ambitious program of economic reform in 1978 and Mikhail Gorbachev detailed his policies of openness and restructuring in 1986.

They also grappled with how to open their economies without ceding control. China turned against liberalization in the first congress after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, with leaders concerned that Western democratic thoughts could spur the collapse of the party. But after growth slowed to less than 4 percent, Deng, who had recently retired, pushed at the 1992 congress for market reforms.

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