SEOUL • North Korea has started welcoming delegates from around the country to its first ruling party congress in 36 years, as rival South Korea expressed concern that Pyongyang could conduct a nuclear test before or during the event.
The isolated North has conducted a series of weapons tests, including three failed launches of an intermediate-range missile, in the run-up to the Workers' Party congress starting in Pyongyang on Friday.
North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un has aggressively pursued nuclear weapons and could be looking to a successful test this week as a crowning achievement.
South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo said Pyongyang's fifth nuclear test may come before or around the time of the opening of the congress.
"North Korea's goal is to be internationally recognised as a nuclear weapons state," Mr Han told a parliamentary hearing yesterday.
"We believe its nuclear capability is advancing."
At the congress, which foreign media organisations have been invited to cover, Mr Kim is expected to declare his country a nuclear weapons state and formally adopt his "byongjin" policy to push simultaneously for economic development and nuclear capability.
It follows the "songun", or military-first, policy by Mr Kim's father and his grandfather's "juche", the North's home-grown founding ideology that combines Marxism and extreme nationalism.
Pyongyang citizens "fervently welcomed participants of the congress who have given all their patriotic passion", North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said.
The Daily NK, a website run by defectors with sources in North Korea, said that since mid-April, free movement in and out of the capital had been stopped and security personnel summoned from the provinces to step up domestic surveillance.
The party congress is the first since 1980, before the 33-year-old leader was born. His father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011, never held one.
Mr Kim Jong Un may decide to take on the post of party general secretary, a position held by his late father, elevating himself from first secretary.
The congress is expected to last four to five days, South Korean government officials and experts said.