North Korea to Hold First Communist 'Party Congress' in 36 Years

PHOTO: A file picture released by North Koreas state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a ceremony in the meeting hall of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea, Jan. 12, 2016. PlayRodong via EPA
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For the first time in 36 years, North Korea's ruling Workers' Party will hold a congress, scheduled to begin on Friday. The event will likely include high-office candidate nominations and celebrate the communist regime of current leader, Kim Jong-un – but no one is sure why now.

North Korea has held only seven party congresses in its history. During the last one, in 1980, Kim’s father – Kim Jong-il – was confirmed as the successor to the state’s founder, Kim Il-sung.

“It is roughly the equivalent of a political party convention that we have in the United States,” Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University said.

It’s unclear why Kim Jong-un is calling for a party congress this year, but the Workers’ Party is expected to present a unified image of strength.

“North Korea doesn’t have a large party event like this unless they have their ducks in a row,” Madden said.

He added that it’s unlikely major shifts in leadership – including any change in Kim Jong-un’s ruling status — will be announced. Madden expects demographic changes to the Workers' Party could be on the agenda, including adding more women and millennial-aged people to leadership positions.

The country is inviting international attention to the event, without lifting its veil of secrecy. Kim Jong-un is expected to speak, boasting his successes and perhaps revealing major new policies, especially economic.

The Workers’ Party initiated a "70-day speed campaign" in February to prepare for the party congress, according to North Korea’s state media. They have commissioned work like painting buildings in bright colors and hanging red Workers’ Party flags on street lamps.

According to the North Korea Leadership Watch web site, the 70-day campaign has been a characteristic of the Kim family since the 1970s. During the span of time leading up to the Party Congress, the Workers’ Party increases ideological indoctrination, tightens social controls, and mobilizes the population to complete infrastructure projects and increase industrial and commercial output.

Kim may also conduct some sort of a missile test to show off the country’s military prowess, despite the country’s increasing isolation from the rest of the world as a result of its pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistics. The United Nations Security Council tightened its sanctions on North Korea in March, as a response to the country’s January nuclear test.

“If a nuclear or missile test occurs during the Party Congress, the purpose will be to highlight North Korea's technological prowess and the leadership of Kim Jong-un,” said Joel Wit, founder of North Korea website, 38North.

PHOTO: A photo made available by the North Korean Central News Agency shows a Musudan missile displayed during a military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea, 2010. KCNA/EPA
A photo made available by the North Korean Central News Agency shows a Musudan missile displayed during a military parade marking the 65th anniversary of the foundation of the Workers' Party of Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea, 2010.

“But such a test will also serve other purposes, namely to show other countries that North Korea would be willing to use nuclear weapons to defend itself and to gather additional technical information that will contribute to the further development of its nuclear arsenal and missile force,” he said.

Security has been strengthened in the capital city, with increased inspections and property searches, including forbidding free movement in and out of the capital, according to a source in South Pyongyang Province cited by the Daily NK, an online newspaper based in Seoul, South Korea.

North Korea has also invited foreign media to cover the party congress, but journalists will be monitored closely. Cell phone access will be restricted for most of the event, and much of the country and its people will remain off-limits.

Madden says the entire event will be very controlled, with an “information black-out” of sorts. North Korea’s state media will release information through a regimented process.

The last party congress in 1980 lasted about four days, but it’s unclear how long the event will last this time around. “Everyone is positively clueless,” Madden says. “It could last a day but I don’t suspect it will.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of the story contained an embedded tweet which was not from an official North Korean news source. The presence and content of the tweet were not mentioned in the original story.