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Kim taps image of North Korea's eternal leader to project power

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is attempting to move away from the "grim" era of his father as he seeks to project power by tapping the charismatic image of his grandfather - the nation's revered founder and "eternal leader" Kim Il Sung.

[HONG KONG] North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is attempting to move away from the "grim" era of his father as he seeks to project power by tapping the charismatic image of his grandfather - the nation's revered founder and "eternal leader" Kim Il Sung.

By holding the first Workers' Party congress in 36 years, Kim underscored the influence of the party, an approach used by Kim Il Sung until his death in 1994, and reiterated his commitment to the "byeongjin" policy of dual-development of the economy and military capabilities.

In contrast, Kim Jong Il promoted a military-first policy that led to the development of nuclear weapons, while exacerbating an economic decline and a deadly famine that may have killed millions.

"He is continuing to try to distance himself from the style and policies of this father," said Brian Bridges, adjunct professor of Asian politics at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. "The Congress is an echo back to his grandfather. He wants to show himself to be a strong leader like his grandfather, not a reclusive leader like his father."

With the country more isolated than ever after a new round of international sanctions over its latest nuclear test, Kim is playing to his base by drumming up parallels with his revered grandfather.

Kim Il Sung, who fought to liberate the country from its Japanese occupiers, oversaw the reconstruction of North Korea after its civil war and built an economy that was briefly more prosperous than that of its southern neighbour.

The Bank of Korea estimates that South Korea's gross national income per capita in 2014 was more than 21 times that of the North - the biggest gap since such data was first compiled in 1990, when the figure was 5.7.

Kim also bears more of a physical resemblance to his grandfather than to his father. That similarity was more apparent than usual at the congress when he donned a western suit in the style of his grandfather to deliver a three-hour speech, eschewing the Mao-style jacket favoured by his father.

The congress, which ended on Monday, also named Kim Jong Un as chairman of the Workers' Party. It was followed by a huge parade on Tuesday in Pyongyang, where Kim looked down over thousands of people, many in traditional dress, marching across a square waving flags and pompoms.

The congress was long on political theatre and short on substance, though it gave Kim the opportunity to install more loyalists in the party ranks after a series of purges of officials linked to his father's rule, including the assassination of his uncle and one-time deputy, Jang Song Thaek.

Kim used the Congress to try to damp global fears over his weapons program, saying North Korea would only use nuclear arms if attacked.

Pyongyang tested its fourth nuclear device in January. The regime was also willing to normalise relations with countries that respect North Korea's sovereignty even if "they had been hostile toward it in the past," he said. Kim also announced a five-year economic plan - the first since the previous congress led by his grandfather.

"North Koreans still remember the economy flourished under Kim Il Sung, and that's what Kim Jong Un is after," said Yoo Ho Yeol, a professor of North Korea studies at Korea University. "Kim Il Sung had 3-year, 7-year development plans for the economy, and Kim Jong Un's five-year plan seems to mimic that."

With its command economy, North Korea was quicker to rebuild after the Korean War that saw the capitals of both countries - Pyongyang and Seoul - devastated by bombings and artillery attacks.

Per capita income in North Korea exceeded that of the South well into the 1960s and kept pace into the 1970s.

The nation's founder was able to prop up the economy by successfully exploiting rivalries between the Soviet Union and China to secure a steady flow of aid.

He remained a pivotal figure during the Cold War and more than 100 foreign delegations were on hand as observers at the last party congress in 1980, while none were seen at this year's event.

Kim Jong Un "has been tapping into his grandfather's still very positive image," said John Delury, a historian at Yonsei University in Seoul. "North Korea in the days of Kim Il Sung was a place you could be proud of. They rebuilt the country better than South Korea."

ECONOMIC NOSEDIVE

While North Korea was already in decline when Kim Jong Il took over in 1994, the economy nose-dived under his rule.

Kim Jong Il prized arms development over economic improvement to consolidate his hold on power.

Those priorities, coupled with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, and with it the food and energy aid that helped prop up the regime, turned a series of droughts and floods into one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern history.

Some studies estimate that more than 10 per cent of the population of 25 million perished in a collapse that came to be known as the "arduous march."

Alison Evans, a senior analyst at IHS Country Risk, said there has been a "significant" expansion of special economic zones and "substantial" progress in nuclear and missile technologies.

"It's clear that the leadership of North Korea recognises that both are important for domestic stability and international stature," Ms Evans said. "Economic growth will help fund a stronger, more technologically advanced, military."

In what Prof Delury said was a veiled reference to the harsh conditions under his father, Kim used the word "grim" on a couple of occasions during the Congress to describe the period.

"He's distancing himself from that, and saying 'I am taking us back to the good days'," he said.

BLOOMBERG