SEOUL: After four years of top-level reshuffles, purges and executions, Kim Jong-un will formally cement his unassailable status as North Korea’s supreme leader at a landmark ruling party congress this week.
The first gathering of its kind for nearly 40 years is really a coronation of sorts – recognizing the young 33-year-old leader as the legitimate inheritor of the dynastic dictatorship started by his grandfather Kim Il-sung and passed down through his late father Kim Jong-il.
“This congress means everything for Kim Jong-un,” said John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“It is the most public, historic setting in which he can demonstrate that he is fully in charge, and that everyone follows his orders,” he added. “Nominally, it’s for the party, but really this congress is for Kim.”
Kim wasn’t even born when the last congress was held in 1980 to crown his father as the heir apparent to founding leader Kim Il-sung.
When his own turn came, following the death of Kim Jong-il in Dec. 2011, there were numerous doubters who suggested the Swiss finishing school graduate lacked the survival skills needed for the Machiavellian world of North Korean power politics.
But he proved them wrong, purging the party, government and powerful military of those seen as disloyal, and displaying a ruthless streak that notably led to the execution of his powerful uncle, and one-time political mentor, Jang Song-thaek.
He also adjusted his father’s “songun,” or military first policy, to a “byungjin” policy of pursuing nuclear weapons in tandem with economic development.
The nuclear half of that strategy has dominated the run-up to the party congress, starting with a fourth nuclear test in January that was followed by a long-range rocket launch and a flurry of other missile and weapons tests.
“The objective of all that was clear from the start,” said Victor Cha, Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “It was a race to have a credible nuclear deterrent in place, as a crowning achievement, before the congress opens.”
But there was an embarrassing stumble in the home straight, with the failure in recent weeks of three separate efforts to test fire a powerful, new mid-range ballistic missile capable of striking US bases on the Pacific island of Guam.
Nuclear test prologue
One final act might still play out before the party gathering begins on May 6, with many predicting a fifth nuclear test to underline the North’s status as a genuine nuclear power.
Then, once the congress gets underway, comes the question of what, beyond Kim’s leadership qualities, the gathering will seek to spotlight.
The optimist’s scenario is that, with a confirmed nuclear deterrent in the bag, Kim will announce that the North’s security is ensured and the focus can now switch to the other half of his “byungjin” strategy – economic development.
“The key is not whether such a strong North Korean deterrent force is a reality, not even whether Kim believes it, but whether he will set out this position as the philosophical basis for a new direction in policy,” said Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation in California.
In his very first public address, at a military parade in April 2012, Kim had said he was determined that North Koreans would “never have to tighten their belts again.”
The need to raise living standards has been a constant refrain of his annual New Year addresses, although analysts note that they have been largely devoid of any specific policy initiatives.
So while the party congress does provide the platform for a genuine policy shift, it can just as easily become a stage for tired, self-congratulatory rhetoric that offers little in the way of change.
New, young leaders?
Whatever the tone, the content of the speeches, especially Kim’s keynote address, will be closely scrutinized as will any personnel changes, with analysts looking for a younger crop of officials to take over leadership positions.
The North’s chief diplomatic ally, China, which has become increasingly frustrated with Pyongyang’s refusal to restrain its nuclear ambitions, will be among the closest observers.
“Any North Korean rhetorical emphasis on living standards and peaceful development over nuclear chest-thumping and threats… will be interpreted by Chinese state media as evidence that things are moderating,” said Adam Cathcart, a University of Leeds specialist on China-North Korea ties.
He added, “There may also be more willingness to work with newly-promoted officials who are somewhat younger and presumably more pragmatic.”