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North Korea stages once-in-a-generation party congress

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North Korea raised the curtain Friday on its biggest political show for a generation, aimed at cementing the absolute rule of leader Kim Jong Un and shadowed by the possibility of an imminent nuclear test.

[PYONGYANG] North Korea raised the curtain Friday on its biggest political show for a generation, aimed at cementing the absolute rule of leader Kim Jong Un and shadowed by the possibility of an imminent nuclear test.

The first ruling party congress for nearly 40 years drew thousands of selected delegates from across the country to Pyongyang for what, in theory at least, was a gathering of North Korea's top decision-making body.

The 33-year-old Mr Kim, who was not even born when the last Workers' Party Congress was held in 1980, was expected to deliver a keynote address which will be minutely scrutinised for any policy shift or personnel changes in the governing elite.

The 1980 event was staged to crown Mr Kim's father Kim Jong Il as heir apparent to his own father, the North's founding leader Kim Il Sung.

While the agenda - and even the duration - of the event is still unknown, its main objective is widely seen as confirming Kim Jong Un's status as legitimate inheritor of the Kim family's dynastic rule which spans almost seven decades.

The congress is also expected to confirm as party doctrine Mr Kim's "byungjin" policy of pursuing nuclear weapons in tandem with economic development.

Ahead of the gathering, national and Workers' Party flags lined the broad, rainswept streets of Pyongyang, while banners carried slogans such as "Great comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will always be with us".

Another slogan stretched across the street defiantly proclaimed: "Defend the headquarters of the Korean revolution at the cost of our lives."

Since Mr Kim took power after the death of his father in December 2011, North Korea has carried out two nuclear tests and two successful space rocket launches that were widely seen as disguised ballistic missile tests.

Even as the international community responded with condemnation and sanctions, Mr Kim pressed ahead with a single-minded drive for a credible nuclear deterrent with additional missile and technical tests.

There has been widespread speculation about the North preparing another nuclear test to coincide with the congress, as a defiant gesture of strength and intent.

Just hours before the party congress opened, the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea issued a statement underlining the country's status as a genuine, and unapologetic, nuclear power.

"Regardless of whether someone recognises it or not, our status as a nuclear state that is armed with H-bombs cannot change," the statement said.

Analysing the most recent satellite pictures of the North's test site at Punggye-ri, the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University on Thursday said there was no clear evidence one way or the other of whether an underground test was imminent.

South Korean government officials believe the North is ready to conduct a test as soon as the order is given, and say a decision might have been taken to test during the congress, which the world's media have been invited to cover.

Officials in Seoul say they expect the event to last four days, with the opening day devoted to Mr Kim's speech and a lengthy report on the party's achievements.

State television set the tone with its first broadcast Friday morning, with an announcer voicing the people's "deepest gratitude" to Kim Jong Un for preparing this "grand political festival".

Some analysts predict significant personnel changes as Mr Kim brings in a younger generation of leaders, picked for their loyalty to him.

Preparing for the congress involved mobilising the entire country in a 70-day campaign that New York-based Human Rights Watch denounced as a mass exercise in forced labour.

AFP