North’s Congress to open May 6

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North’s Congress to open May 6

North Korea said Wednesday it would hold its ruling party congress from May 6, one of the biggest political events in the country in 36 years, amid speculation that a fifth nuclear test is imminent.

The North’s Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea made the decision to open the seventh Congress of the Workers’ Party in Pyongyang, state-run Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday, without elaborating on such details as how many days it will run or what the agenda will be.

The congress will be held for the first time since 1980, when founding leader Kim Il Sung presided. It will be the first congress for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whose late father Kim Jong-il didn’t hold one.

The 33-year-old Kim is likely to trumpet his achievements as leader and declare a new vision for the country in a bid to consolidate power. He is expected to promote the “byongjin” policy, which aims to boost the country’s economy and military at the same time.

The announcement came as South Korea and the United States watch what appear to be preparations for a fifth nuclear test at the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site being finalized. They suspect that North Korea will carry out a nuclear test ahead of the May 6 congress.

“Considering the readiness of the nuclear test site, we feel that a nuclear test can be carried out at any time,” Jeong Joon-hee, spokesman at the Ministry of Unification, said at a regular briefing on Wednesday. “We are watching closely the situation and are in full readiness.”

Jeong said the congress is likely to last four or five days.

Kim’s biggest political show may not be attended by foreign guests, amid mounting pressure from the international community after a series of provocations including its fourth nuclear test in Jan. 6 and a long-range missile launch on Feb. 7.

At the sixth Congress in 1980, some 177 representatives of 118 countries attended including the vice chairman of the Communist Party of China, Li Xiannian, who would become its president three years later. In 1970, at the fifth Congress, no foreign guests participated, possibly due to the Sino-Soviet border conflict that began in March 1969.

The first congress of the Workers’ Party was held in 1946, followed by a second in 1948, a third in 1956 and the fourth in 1961.

As it will be the first such assembly for Kim Jong-un, Seoul is watching closely to determine whether a group of senior officials will retire and be replaced by younger people.

Analysts expect Kim to focus on consolidating his power and stepping out of the shadow of his father.

“It is likely that Kim will underscore the importance of young party members in a bid to foster loyalists to support him,” said Lee Su-seok, chief researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, an affiliate of the National Intelligence Service. Recent reports said the North’s ruling party was excluding members over 60 from the congress.

As for the feared nuclear test, many North Korea experts believe it will happen in a few days.

“There is a possibility that North Korea will conduct the nuclear test in order to make the country a hydrogen bomb state, marking the biggest achievement of Kim Jong-un,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, a policy think tank. This would distinguish him from his father Kim Jong-il, who developed atomic bombs. Cheong believes May 1 is the best timing for the fifth nuclear test.

North Korea has ramped up its rhetoric over the past months, threatening Seoul and Washington over recent joint military drills, which were the largest ever. Pyongyang tested a series of ballistic missiles, including a submarine-launched ballistic missile on Saturday.

On March 15, Kim gave orders for a nuclear warhead test and a ballistic missile test “soon,” which are all banned under United Nations Security Council resolutions.

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