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North Korea Set to Celebrate Kim Jong Un’s Era


FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes as he arrives to inspect a military drill at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, March 25, 2016.

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un salutes as he arrives to inspect a military drill at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, March 25, 2016.

North Korea’s party congress starting later this week will serve as a political tool to cement Kim Jong Un’s rule, analysts in Seoul and Washington said.

The seventh congress of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, set to begin on Friday, is the first in nearly 40 years. The congress is likely to last several days. In the past, the event drew many delegates from around the world.

In 1980, nearly 180 delegates from 118 countries attended the gathering. This time, the North is known to have invited only a handful of foreign delegates to the event. Despite the low profile, the congress will give Kim an opportunity to assume center stage before a large domestic audience, including more than 3,000 delegates from around the nation. The gathering comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January.

Symbolic procedure

Kim is expected to make major policy announcements during the gathering, although what Kim might announce remains unclear. Kim took power in late 2011, when his father and then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il died suddenly. Some analysts said the congress is likely to be more of a symbolic procedure to elevate Kim’s status, noting Kim has already taken top posts in the party and military.

“The congress has been largely a scripted event so I really wouldn’t expect anything new,” James Person, deputy director for the history and public policy program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said at an event in Washington on Tuesday.

“What you should expect is lots of grandiose statements about nuclear capabilities, support for Kim Jong Un, and the unitary leadership system, internal cohesion, and perhaps economic development,” Person said.

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) applauds during a concert marking the 70th founding anniversary of the Korean People's Army (KPA) military band in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.

FILE - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) applauds during a concert marking the 70th founding anniversary of the Korean People's Army (KPA) military band in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang.

Touting Kim’s image

Park Hyeong-jung, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, South Korea’s state-run institute, told VOA the event is still important for Kim’s political future. “The most important objective of the gathering is to show to the world that Kim has secured power firmly,” Park said.

South Korean officials said the North is likely to step up efforts to glorify Kim after the event.

Recently, North Korea’s state media have been making deliberate attempts to boost Kim’s image as a leader by linking him to major events. When Pyongyang announced the latest nuclear test, the country’s state television carried images of a “written order” by Kim.

Some expected Kim to announce a change in the country’s approach to Seoul.

Conciliatory gesture possible

“My view is that we might see something pretty important, but subtle, at this congress in terms of principles or underlying philosophy, which would then govern new initiatives toward South Korea,” said Robert Carlin, a former U.S. intelligence official who also participated in the Washington event.

Kim needs a long-term strategy that goes beyond the current standoff with Seoul, according to Carlin.

South Korean officials said Kim is not likely to take a bold move toward Seoul given the tensions between the two sides.

This week, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said the North is ready to conduct another nuclear test at any time, adding the timing is likely to be decided by political considerations.

Baik Sungwon contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with VOA Korean Service.

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