SEOUL • Pyongyang yesterday said its ruling Workers' Party will hold a congress from May 6, ending its silence on the date of the first such conference in 36 years, as South Korea said another nuclear test by the North appeared imminent.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to use the congress to cement his leadership and to formally adopt his policy, known as "byongjin", to push simultaneously for economic development and nuclear weapons capability.
North Korea's last party congress was in 1980, before Mr Kim was born. Mr Kim, the third member of his family to lead the country, is believed to be 33 years old.
The party congress, expected to last four or five days, was first announced last October. It will be closely watched for any new policies and for how the country will present its pursuit of nuclear wea- pon capability.
It would not be a surprise if Pyongyang conducts its fifth nuclear test before its party congress, said Dr Victor Cha, a US expert on North Korea who served as adviser to former US president George W. Bush.
Speaking to reporters in Seoul yesterday on the sidelines of the Asan Plenum - an annual conference that covers issues including nuclear threat and security - Dr Cha said Pyongyang is driven by a desire to "demonstrate that it has achieved full nuclear weapon status before the party congress to give legitimacy to Kim Jong Un".
The congress was last held under the rule of Mr Kim's grandfather Kim Il Sung, the state founder. Mr Kim Jong Un's father Kim Jong Il, who died in December 2011, never held a party congress.
North Korea's drive to develop nuclear capability has intensified since January, when it conducted its fourth nuclear test and followed that with a string of tests of missiles that could deliver such a weapon.
South Korea, and others nervously watching the North's defiance of United Nations sanctions aimed at curbing its nuclear and ballistic missile technologies, expect another test within days.
"Considering the state of readiness at the nuclear test site, it's our view that a nuclear test can happen at any time," South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Jeong Joon Hee said yesterday.
North Korea said this week it needed a "powerful nuclear deterrence" to counter hostility and threats by the United States.
The US State Department warned on Tuesday it would consider "other" options if the North continued nuclear testing and ballistic missile launches. It declined to elaborate.
US President Barack Obama said in an interview aired on Tuesday that there "was no easy solution" to the North Korean threat and while the US "could destroy North Korea with our arsenals", there would not only be humanitarian costs but also potential impact on South Korea.
Dr Gary Samore, former White House coordinator for non-proliferation and arms control, said at the Asan Plenum that the expected nuclear test by Pyongyang can be a pretext for new, stiffer sanctions that can close some of the loopholes in the current UN sanctions.
But there is no need to panic yet.
"North Korea is still years away from directly threatening the US" as it has yet to successfully launch an intercontinental missile, said Dr Samore.
•With additional reporting by Chang May Choon