North Korea looks back to the future at first ruling congress

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaking at the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaking at the Seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang.PHOTO: REUTERS/KCNA

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea's first ruling party congress for nearly four decades proclaimed the formal start of the Kim Jong Un era, but the event was more notable for nods to the past than promises for the future.

Analysts looking for signs of substantive policy shifts or reforms under the young leader were given little to go on, as the 33-year-old Mr Kim signalled few changes at home and a continued foreign policy of belligerent defiance backed by an expanding nuclear arsenal.

Widely seen as a formal coronation for Mr Kim, who inherited power after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in late 2011, the congress had always threatened to be more about spectacle than substance. But even the symbolic highlights were backward looking, with the final session of the four-day conclave on Monday appointing Mr Kim to the post of party chairman.

The "chairman" title was used by his grandfather, the country's revered founding leader Kim Il Sung, during the 1950s and 60s - a relative golden period of rapid post-Korean War recovery and industrialisation that saw the North's economy race ahead of the capitalist South's.

The young Mr Kim bears a striking physical resemblance to his grandfather - a similarity he has played up in a clear attempt to co-opt the founder's legacy.

During the congress, Mr Kim sported a western-style suit and tie - a look also favoured on occasion by Kim Il Sung, while Kim Jong Il always opted for a so-called "Mao suit" buttoned to the neck for formal events.

If the leader's new title and sartorial choices harked back to a previous era, so in one sense did the entire congress, which sealed a comeback - engineered by Mr Kim - for a ruling party that had ceded significant political power to the military during his father's rule.

"It's a return to the ruling structure of his grandfather, when the whole governing system was more functional," said Mr Michael Madden, editor of North Korea Leadership Watch website.

"It seems Kim Jong Un is not only interested in looking like his father, he also wants to govern in the same way," Mr Madden said.

Elections to key party organisations at the congress saw a cut in the number of uniformed military officers in senior posts, and the downsizing of the party's central military commission.

But the generational shift in the senior leadership that some analysts had predicted never came about.

"You have to remember that these systems move at a glacial pace," said Mr Madden. "We were never going to see a bunch of 25-year-olds suddenly climbing on to the rostrum."

On the policy front, the congress largely opted to reinforce the status quo, trumpeting the North's view of itself as a full-fledged nuclear weapons state and firmly endorsing the push to both improve and expand the country's nuclear arsenal.

There were few signs of any economic reform, with Mr Kim unveiling a new five-year plan that was short on detail but full of rhetorical ambition about boosting production.

"The pivot to the economy disappointed," said Mr Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the Petersen Institute for International Economics.

"It showed a leadership still unable to clearly distinguish between grandiose objectives and showcase projects, and the less glamorous slog of incremental reforms," Mr Haggard said.

"If this congress sought to send any messages to the outside world ... the message was 'get used to us continuing to do what we have been doing'," he added.

The lack of policy innovation raises the question of what the congress - the first to be held since 1980 - was actually for.

For some, it was essentially nothing more than a piece of political theatre, with Mr Kim firmly front and centre stage for the duration.

After more than four years in power characterised by purges, nuclear tests and missile launches, Mr Kim has consolidated his position as North Korea's only leading man, and one who will remain top of the bill for the foreseeable future.

"The congress was a purely political event for the leadership to justify itself," said Mr Chang Yong Seok, a senior researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.

"It was all about idolising Kim and demonstrating loyalty. In the end, that was really the only purpose," Mr Chang said.