PYONGYANG • North Korea's first ruling party congress since 1980 entered its second day yesterday, after leader Kim Jong Un opened with a defiant defence of his nuclear weapons programme and amid fresh signs that Pyongyang is getting ready for a fifth nuclear test.
The once-in-a-generation gathering of the country's top decision- making body is being scrutinised for signs of any substantive policy change or major reshuffle in the isolated state's ruling elite.
In his opening address last Friday, the 33-year-old Mr Kim, dressed in a Western-style suit and tie, hailed the "magnificent... and thrilling" nuclear test carried out on Jan 6, which Pyongyang claimed was of a powerful hydrogen bomb.
The test and long-range rocket launch that followed a month later "smashed the hostile forces' vicious manoeuvres geared to sanctions and strangulation, and displayed to the world the indomitable spirit, daring grit and inexhaustible strength of heroic Korea", Mr Kim said.
North Korea has conducted a total of four nuclear tests, two of them since Mr Kim came to power in late 2011 following the death of his father and former leader Kim Jong Il.
The test and long-range rocket launch that followed a month later... "displayed to the world the indomitable spirit, daring grit and inexhaustible strength of heroic Korea", Mr Kim said.
Speculation that the North might be readying a fifth test, in defiance of toughened United Nations sanctions, was fuelled yesterday by recent satellite imagery of the Punggye-ri nuclear test site in the north- east of the country.
Analysts at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said the presence of vehicles at the complex's test command centre signalled the possibility of a test "in the near future".
Reacting to Mr Kim's speech, Washington urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions altogether and rejoin the international community.
The party congress is widely seen as Mr Kim's formal "coronation" and recognition of his status as the legitimate inheritor of the Kim family's dynastic rule which spans almost seven decades.
The agenda, published for the first time last Friday, included an item on electing Mr Kim to the "top post" of the Workers' Party. He is currently first party secretary, but may take on the post of party general secretary, a position held by his late father.
The conclave may also enshrine as formal party doctrine Mr Kim's "byungjin" policy of pursuing nuclear weapons in tandem with economic development.
Meanwhile, a group of Nobel laureates visited North Korea despite objections from South Korea.
Professor Aaron Ciechanover, Professor Finn Kydland and Professor Sir Richard Roberts arrived on April 29 for a programme covering mainly academic exchanges at elite universities in Pyongyang, under the auspices of the Vienna-based International Peace Foundation.
The foundation's founding chairman Uwe Morawetz told reporters in Beijing after returning from Pyongyang that the event had been planned for 21/2 years and the group was there to discuss medical and economic matters, not nuclear ones.
They did not meet senior North Korean politicians.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS