6 May 2016

N Korea gathering shrouded in secrecy

8:40 pm on 6 May 2016

North Korea is holding its most important political gathering in decades, as leader Kim Jong-un seeks to cement his status and chart a vision for the future.

Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il on the 'April 25 Palace', the venue of the 7th Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang.

Portraits of late North Korean leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il on the 'April 25 Palace', the venue of the 7th Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP

The first full congress of the ruling party in 36 years is being closely watched for any shift in policies or changes in political leadership.

Mr Kim is expected to reassert his nuclear ambitions, amid speculation he will soon conduct a fifth nuclear test.

Foreign media have been invited but are not been allowed inside the venue.

The capital was spruced up ahead of the event and citizens layed flowers in central squares as it got under way.

The streets are lined with National and Workers' Party flags with banners that read "Great comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il will always be with us" and "Defend the headquarters of the Korean revolution at the cost of the our lives".

It is the seventh meeting of North Korea's Worker's Party and the first since 1980, and is being held inside the April 25 House of Culture, now covered in vast red and gold banners and massive images of the current leader's father and grandfather.

Kim Jong-un came to power when he was still in his twenties after his father's unexpected death.

The agenda and duration of the event is not known but experts say Kim Jong-un is likely to declare his so-called "byongjin" policy, which is the simultaneous push towards economic development and nuclear capability.

It could also see a new generation of leaders put in place.

The meeting will elect a new central committee, which appoints a Politburo - the central decision-making body of the Communist party - and many say loyalists to the current leader will be rewarded with high profile posts.

Who he chooses will be watched carefully. In 2013 Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed for "acts of treachery" and there have followed many reports of purges of high profile figures in the establishment.

Some experts have said that Mr Kim's sister Kim Yo-jong, with whom he attended school in Switzerland, is tipped for promotion.

Ahead of the event, the government trumpeted "miraculous results" in energy production, and nuclear and ballistic missile developments that were "the greatest gifts" for the rare party congress, but little of substance was revealed.

State radio said the 7th Workers' Party congress would "unveil the brilliant blueprint to bringing forward the final victory of our revolution," according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.

A crowd of people are seen on Kim Il-Sung Square before the Juche tower as rain falls in Pyongyang.

A crowd of people are seen on Kim Il-Sung Square before the Juche tower as rain falls in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP

Kim Jong-un is inside the hall, our correspondent adds, with guards lined up outside.

But instead of being allowed into the congress, reporters have instead been taken to on a factory tour.

Each member of the foreign media has a minder. They are people in dark suits who step in very quickly if they do not like what they see or hear.

They come straight into hotel rooms unannounced, and ask for offending footage to be erased.

The run-up to the congress saw attempts at missile launches amid speculation the North would conduct a fifth nuclear test. Sanctions on North Korea were tightened after it conducted its fourth test in January.

A foreign press photographer in front of the April 25 palace.

A foreign press photographer in front of the April 25 palace. Photo: AFP

National and Workers' Party flags were lining the streets along with banners that read "Great comrades Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il will always be with us" and "Defend the headquarters of the Korean revolution at the cost of our lives".

The agenda and duration of the event was not known but experts said Kim Jong-un was likely to declare his so-called "byongjin" policy, the simultaneous push towards economic development and nuclear capability.

Under Kim Jong-un, an informal market economy has been allowed to grow although it has not been officially adopted as government policy.

However, more taxis and private cars on the streets, more goods in shops, and more buildings under construction attest to growing prosperity and consumption among Pyongyang residents.

It could also see a new generation of leaders put in place.

The meeting would elect a new central committee, appointing a Politburo and other key political roles, and many say loyalists to the current leader will be rewarded with high profile posts.

His choices would be watched carefully. In 2013 Kim Jong-un had his uncle executed for "acts of treachery" and there followed many reports of purges of high profile figures in the establishment.

Some experts say Mr Kim's sister Kim Yo-jong, with whom he attended school in Switzerland, is tipped for promotion.

Many observers will scrutinise announcements carefully to evaluate the North's commitment to a planned economy and hints at economic reform, but the congress is also being seen as the public stage for Kim Jong-un to define his leadership for the years to come.

- BBC / Reuters / RNZ

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