North Korea party congress to establish 'era' of Kim Jong Un: 5 things to note

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station No. 3 in Pyongyang in this undated photo.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Paektusan Hero Youth Power Station No. 3 in Pyongyang in this undated photo.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (Bloomberg) - North Korea's ruling Workers' Party will on Friday (May 6) open its biggest meeting in more than three decades, with the focus on the course Kim Jong Un will chart for the isolated nation.

The Kim family has used party congresses - the last was held in 1980 - to consolidate its grip on power and announce long-term economic plans. This year's gathering comes on the heels of a slew of missile launches, the nation's fourth nuclear test, and a threat by Kim to detonate another nuclear bomb as he seeks to build weapons capable of striking the US. The congress is expected to last several days.

Here are five things to look out for at the meeting:

1. Nuclear Legacy

Since taking over in 2011, Kim has striven to improve North Korea's nuclear arms program as he seeks to extend the nuclear legacy left by his father Kim Jong Il. In January, the nation detonated a device it claimed was its first hydrogen bomb. Having enshrined the country's nuclear ambitions in the constitution in 2012, Kim may use the congress to further elevate his country's profile as a nuclear-armed state.

2. New Generation

The meeting offers Kim a chance to usher in a new generation of elite officials to replace some of the old guard who underpinned his father's rule. He's already carried out a series of high-profile purges to that effect, including the execution of his uncle and one-time deputy Jang Song Thaek to strengthen his grip on power.

"Who goes up and who gets appointments and promotions, if there's some kind of power shift to a younger, either technocratic or entrepreneurial elite - that's the kind of thing to look for," says John Delury, a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul.

3. Economic Vision

Food production and private enterprises have grown under Kim, even as disparitieshave widened. Malnutrition remains widespread among the 25-million population despite Kim's 2012 pledge to never let his people "tighten their belts again." The congress gives him the opportunity to review his market-oriented reforms and set out a new direction.

4. Olive Branch

Having ratcheted up tensions with a nuclear test and ballistic missile launches, Kim may use the convention to make proposals for talks with other nations. At the 1980 congress, North Korea proposed uniting the Korean peninsula in the form of a confederation. However, the nation's insistence on nuclear arms as a non-negotiable condition may block the way to any diplomatic rapprochement.

Kang Jun Young, a professor of Chinese affairs at Seoul's Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, says that China - North Korea's main ally and by far its biggest trading partner - is interested in seeing what changes come out of the meeting and how it could use them as a way to engage Pyongyang. But, he adds, another nuclear test would only push China to stiffen its hard-line stance against the regime.

5. Party Control

The Workers' Party saw its power weaken under Kim Jong Il, who exercised his authority through the National Defense Commission and agencies that functioned outside the boundaries of the party. His son wants to renew the influence of the party as a crutch to sustain his power.

Kim Jong Un "has cemented his rule, shown progress in nuclear missile development and made economic reforms in his four years in power", says Koh Yu Hwan, a North Korea professor at Dongguk University in Seoul. "The meeting is a moment to tout that progress and declare the start of the 'Kim Jong Un' era."