There’s a buzz in the air in Pyongyang this week, a certain frisson that seems a combination of anticipation, tension and exhaustion. North Koreans are gearing up for something they haven’t seen in more than three decades — a Workers’ Party Congress, the highest-level political gathering in the reclusive one-party state.
Since January, Kim Jong Un’s government has been doing its utmost to set the stage: He’s tested a nuclear weapon, launched a satellite into low-Earth orbit and fired off some missiles. Although many countries are aghast at the moves, even going so far as to pass new sanctions at the United Nations, in North Korea they’re portrayed as feats of strength.
When the congress opens Friday, they’ll be celebrated as great achievements, examples of how Kim has purportedly brought this impoverished country of 24 million into some sort of parity with superpowers such as the United States.
The drive kicked off in late February, and since then, across the capital, workers have been painting buildings in bright pastels and otherwise spiffing up their city. New propaganda banners have sprung up across the spartan metropolis of 2.5 million.
“Let us strengthen our party’s might and fighting strength!” exhorts one red-and-green billboard. “Single-hearted unity!”
Clusters of red flags with yellow communist sickles have appeared on street corners like bouquets. Brigades of gardeners are hastily planting real flowers at major intersections.
The state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun declared Wednesday that the “battle” had been an “absolute success.”
“Unceasing in the spirit of success, all workers are rushing like a storm to make the Seventh Party Congress the congress of victors and glory,” the paper claimed. The article further asserted that the 70-day battle had resulted in “the miraculous production” of an additional 160 million kilowatts of electricity, 360,000 tons of coal and 49,000 tons of cement.
Adults and schoolchildren have been ordered to participate in a variety of performances. On Wednesday afternoon, scores of young men were huddled in a pedestrian underpass near the Arch of Triumph, whittling sticks apparently to be used in some sort of a candlelight procession; when a government minder caught a Western journalist taking photos of the scene, she ordered her away from the area, directing her gaze instead across the street, where teenage girls in white blouses and dark skirts practiced twirling red flags.
In front of the Gwangbok department store, creaking streetcars stuffed to the gills disgorged a constant stream of women in traditional Korean dresses and men in suits or military uniforms returning from rehearsals of some sort involving artificial flowers.
The party congress will kick off at the April 25 House of Culture, a massive edifice adorned, like all major government buildings, with large portraits of founding father Kim Il Sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.
Such a confab has not been held since 1980, when Kim Il Sung was still at the helm. Kim Jong Il did not care much for such gatherings, doing away with many party formalities and instead ruling through a small circle of aides while in power from 1994 to 2011.
Girls practice a flag routine to be performed during celebrations for the Workers’ Party Congress.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
People participating in rehearsals for performances at the upcoming Workers’ Party Congress head home.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
Flowers are being planted at a major intersection in front of a propaganda billboard for the party congress.
(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
The April 25 House of Culture, where the congress is to be held.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
A poster for the 7th Workers’ Party Congress.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
People head home after taking part in rehearsals for performances at the political gathering.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
A propaganda billboard in Pyongyang.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
Schoolgirls heading home from rehearsals.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
Some Pyongyang residents check a national flag hanging along a street in the capital. The city is being heavily decorated for the Workers’ Party Congress and generally spiffed up.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
People participating in rehearsals for a candlelight procession wait in an underpass near the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
A mural featuring founding father Kim Il Sung near the stadium named after him in Pyongyang.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
A worker cleans the street in the run-up to the congress.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
People participating in rehearsals before the congress head home.(Julie Makinen / Los Angeles Times)
But Kim Jong Un, who took over in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, appears to be trying to govern more in the relatively ritualized style of his grandfather, outside analysts say. The party congress will gather delegates from across the country, and they are expected to bestow formal titles upon Kim and perhaps consider revisions to the party charter.
Some overseas observers say the event may also offer signals as to what economic policy changes the young leader may decide to pursue, including a possible re-introduction of a taxation system as the country adopts more market-style enterprises even as it pursues nuclear weapons and missiles in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
Exactly what will transpire when the curtain goes up Friday remains a closely guarded secret. But analysts outside the country expect it to be a formal coronation of sorts for Kim Jong Un, who has been consolidating his rule for the last four years.
And if Kim has any plans for significant changes in North Korea, the party congress is when he would be expected to announce them.
Writing last fall on “38 North,” a website of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, one North Korea expert said the congress would “be a good time for Kim Jong Un to lead his country on the path of gradual but real reform.”
“He could go down in history as the man who unleashed the vast economic potential of his country and turned it into the next East Asian dragon — the man who brought lasting peace to Korea and prosperity to his people,” wrote Ruediger Frank, the head of East Asian studies at the University of Vienna.
Perhaps that’s not what will happen. But as Kim has amply demonstrated, he is a man who likes to keep things interesting.
MORE FROM NORTH KOREA
For more details on the Congress, check out our Q+A with an expert on the North Korean leadership.
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