””

News analysis

Few surprises at Pyongyang's first congress in 36 years

Kim's push to develop nuclear capability and economy leaves little hope of weapons talks

North Korea ended its first party congress in 36 years with a bang by electing its young leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, to the new top post of chairman of the ruling Workers' Party on Monday and holding a mass celebration in the heart of Pyongyang yesterday.

As widely expected, Mr Kim used the four-day event to consolidate his power, formally adopt his dual-track policy of pursuing nuclear and economic development simultaneously and to proclaim North Korea as a "responsible nuclear state".

Observers said the congress threw up few surprises, noting that its biggest significance was to officially crown Mr Kim as the country's paramount leader.

Dr Go Myong Hyun, a research fellow at The Asan Institute of Policy Studies think-tank, said Mr Kim's new title does not add to his power as he already has absolute control over his people. "The congress is more about himself. He did it because he wanted to have a big party that will officially recognise him as a leader on the same level as his grandfather, and that he's stepping out of his father's shadow."

In a speech televised on Sunday, Mr Kim declared that North Korea would "faithfully fulfil its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for global denuclearisation". The statement is deemed by observers as a demand for recognition as a nuclear power.

North Koreans at a mass rally and parade in Pyongyang's main ceremonial square yesterday, a day after the ruling party wrapped up its first congress in 36 years by elevating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to party chairman.
North Koreans at a mass rally and parade in Pyongyang's main ceremonial square yesterday, a day after the ruling party wrapped up its first congress in 36 years by elevating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to party chairman. PHOTO: REUTERS

But the official adoption of the "byungjin" line, his signature policy to pursue nuclear and economic development simultaneously, also means that Pyongyang will not be giving up its nuclear weapons any time soon. This is as good as rejecting international calls to resume nuclear talks, experts said.

There is hope, though, that North Korea will now focus more on economic development since it claims to have achieved nuclear status, said Dr Lee Seong Hyun, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute think-tank.

But he added that the country will face a hard time, given the strict sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council in response to Pyongyang's fourth nuclear test in January. Even China, North Korea's main ally and economic lifeline, has stepped up efforts to impose UN sanctions, but stopped short of doing more to curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

Beijing's presence was conspicuously missing at the congress, but Chinese President Xi Jinping did send a congratulatory message to Mr Kim on Monday, according to the North's Korean Central News Agency.

Given China's reluctance to do more and with both the United States and South Korea preoccupied with domestic politics and upcoming presidential elections, Dr Lee said there will be room for other neutral parties, like the UN, to step up and try to engage North Korea.

Even Singapore can play a more active role as a peacemaker, he said. He cited the good work of non-governmental group Choson Exchange, which has provided business and entrepreneurship training to 1,300 North Koreans.

"If a non-threatening neutral state like Singapore were to hold a peace conference, North Korea will be more willing to join," he said.

While the international community is now focused on punishing North Korea for its nuclear test, reining it in will require a carrot-and-stick approach, added Dr Lee. "If North Korea behaves well, we should hand out carrots, so there will be a virtuous circle instead of a vicious one going on."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'Few surprises at Pyongyang's first congress in 36 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe