North Korea opens ruling party congress behind closed doors

North Korea has opened the first full congress of its ruling party since 1980, a major political event intended to showcase the country's stability and unity under young leader Kim Jong Un despite international criticism and tough new sanctions over the North's recent nuclear test and a slew of missile launches.

Pyongyang has been spruced up and bedecked with red flags but the foreign journalists flown in to tell the world about the congress are locked out. Picture: AP

North Korea’s information committee said the congress began yesterday morning. More than 100 foreign journalists – brought in to give the event a global audience – were bused to the venue but were allowed to view it only from outside. No-one except, presumably, the thousands of delegates and officials were allowed inside the ornate April 25 House of Culture, draped in red party banners and flags.

The congress promises to be the country’s biggest political show in years, if not decades. Pyongyang, the capital, has been spruced up, and large groups of students and workers could be seen around the city as a light rain fell. They were preparing for parades and rallies that are to be held in conjunction with the political theatre going on inside the congress hall.

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Kim Jong Un, grandson of national founder and “eternal president” Kim Il Sung, is officially presiding over the congress, though North Korea has announced precious few details of what it will entail.

The last time North Korea’s ruling party held a full congress was in 1980, before Kim Jong Un was even born.

It has held other big meetings since – notably in 2010 and 2012 – but all six previous congresses came under Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994. This congress provides a major opportunity for Kim Jong Un, who is still largely a mystery to the outside world and has yet to travel abroad or meet any world leaders, to step out of the shadows of his grandfather and father, Kim Jong Il.

Though it remained unclear whether Kim Jong Un would address the congress or when, he has patterned himself more closely after his charismatic grandfather than Kim Jong Il, his notoriously reticent father, who rarely spoke in public.

The congress is expected to tout his successes on the nuclear front and promise economic improvements to boost the nation’s standard of living – two themes that the state media hit hard as the congress approached. Mostly, however, the congress is about Kim himself, and putting him front and centre in the eyes of the people and the party as the country’s sole leader.

“Now we are greeting the new era of Marshal Kim Jong Un,” said Choe Un Su, 75. “We should make the American soldiers get out of South Korea and under the leadership of our marshal we can open up the path of reunification.”

Though some personnel shuffling and economic policy tweaks may be forthcoming, Pyongyang has made been clear it has no intention of backing down on its nuclear development programme.

Hours before the ruling party’s congress, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency boasted of the country’s military achievements that followed its nuclear test and long-range rocket launch earlier this year, including claimed advancements in developing nuclear warheads, missile re-entry vehicles and long-range rocket engines.

It said the congress would be a historic celebration because the guidance of Kim Jong Un has elevated the country into a “nuclear, space power” and pushed into the “absolute prime” of its efforts to build a “thriving nation.”