TOKYO – North Korea is preparing to hold a once-in-a-generation congress of its ruling party that is intended to rally the nation behind leader Kim Jong Un and could provide an important glimpse into Kim's plans for the country's economy and military.
The congress, set to begin on Friday, is the first in 36 years and follows a 70-day "loyalty drive" in which everyone from coal miners to restaurant workers were called upon to put in extra hours to increase productivity as a show of their devotion to Kim and the Workers' Party of Korea, which he leads.
The congress comes as North Korea is facing international pressure over a nuclear test in January and a series of rocket and missile launches that have led many outside experts to believe Pyongyang is much closer to having a viable nuclear deterrent than previously thought.
The North, wary of its leader's security and always loath to release any more information to the outside world than it deems absolutely necessary, has disclosed few details of the congress' itinerary. Instead, it has presented the congress as a chance for the ruling party to boast its achievements and unity in the face of the "U.S. imperialists."
But North Korea's foreign minister told The Associated Press in an April 23 interview that the congress would focus on demonstrating unity behind the country's leader and on finding ways to build the North's moribund economy even as global sanctions squeeze it ever tighter.
"One of the most important things through this party congress is to show to the entire world the union of our people," Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong told the AP while he was in New York for a United Nations conference on climate change. "I'm sure our country will be even more vibrant after the party congress to build up a more prosperous and powerful, economically sound nation."
The event will be an opportunity for Kim Jong Un to assume center stage before a world audience. Throngs of foreign journalists are being invited to cover it. That's all the more important because the enigmatic young leader, still in his early 30s, has yet to travel abroad or meet any other heads of state.
In the last party congress, held in 1980, Kim's late father, Kim Jong Il, was awarded a slew of top jobs in a confirmation he was in line to succeed his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung.
Kim Il Sung died in 1994, so Kim Jong Il — who rarely spoke in public and never held a congress after actually assuming power — had 14 years to prepare for power. Kim Jong Un, on the other hand, was virtually unknown outside of the Pyongyang inner circle until a few years before his own father's death in 2011.
Still, there are no signs his position as the head of the world's only socialist dynasty is in question.
The congress will give Kim, who seems to be more like his grandfather and less averse to addressing big crowds, a chance to further cement his authority by getting its stamp of approval on officials who are in his favor. He has conducted numerous shake-ups in the regime's top ranks — the most prominent being the execution of his powerful uncle in 2013 — to make sure he is surrounded by loyal lieutenants.
The congress is sure to praise Kim's nuclear policy, though it has triggered sanctions that have caused economic pain.
Tensions on that front have deepened recently after North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch, which led to the U.N. slapping its toughest sanctions on Pyongyang in 20 years and South Korea and the United States upgrading their annual spring military drills into the biggest they've ever held.
Amid vows it will never be cowed by foreign pressure, the North just days ago test launched two midrange missiles — both of which appear to have failed — and speculation is growing that North Korea could perform a fifth nuclear test ahead of the congress to further burnish Kim's image as a strong leader.
"The DPRK proudly joined the ranks of advanced nuclear and space powers while demonstrating the might of the invincible politico-ideological, military and youth power and is now dashing ahead toward to a socialist economic power and highly civilized nation," the party's official newspaper said in an editorial on Saturday, using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Even so, Ri, the foreign minister, said the economy is still at the top of the congress' agenda.
"The first thing is to advance the pace of economic building for a powerful nation," he said. "The second is to improve the people's living standards and to find the best, optimum ways to improve the people's living standards under these circumstances. And the third, to strengthen our national defense capabilities."
Ri said the convening of the congress is itself of high symbolic importance.
"The real source of power in our country isn't nuclear weapons or any other military means, but the single-minded unity of the people and the leader," he said. "And this power of unity we have is the real source of power that leads our country into victory."
The North's state media has not said how long the congress is scheduled to last. The 1980 congress lasted five days, but this year's is expected to be somewhat shorter.