North Korea’s ruling-party congress on Monday announced a new title for Kim Jong Un, party chairman, in a move that highlights how the authoritarian country’s first congress in 36 years is aimed at bolstering the young leader.
Less than a third of the more than 100 foreign journalists invited for the historic congress were permitted to attend, and even they were allowed to view the proceedings in the ornate April 25 House of Culture for only about 10 minutes. Earlier Monday, a BBC correspondent was expelled for allegedly “insulting the dignity” of North Korea.
As a military band in full uniform played the welcoming song used whenever North Korea’s leader enters a public place, Kim strode onto the stage, generating a long, loud standing ovation from the several thousand delegates attending.
In unison the delegates shouted, “Mansae! Mansae!” wishing Kim long life.
He and other senior party members took their seats, filling several rows on a stage, below portraits of Kim’s grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, and father, Kim Jong Il. The walls were decked with banners of red with the ruling party’s hammer sickle and pen logo embossed in gold.
Kim Yong Nam, the head of the North’s Parliament, stood to read a roster of top party positions — calling Kim Jong Un chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea for the first time.
Kim had already been head of the party, but with the title of first secretary.
His predecessors keep their posthumous titles. Kim Jong Il remains “eternal general secretary” and Kim Il Sung is still “eternal president.”
The congress, which began Friday, has touted Kim’s successes on the nuclear front and promised economic improvements to boost the nation’s standard of living. Mostly, however, the congress has put Kim himself front and center in the eyes of the people and the party as the country’s sole leader.
The event includes what for the North is a relatively large contingent of foreign journalists, but Monday marked the first time any of them were allowed inside the venue. Instead, officials have kept the foreign media busy with trips around Pyongyang to show them places North Korea wants them to see.
Only about 30 of the more than 100 invited journalists were allowed into the congress Monday. Before that, the only window any of them had on the proceedings was through the lens of state media.
North Korea on Monday expelled BBC correspondent Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, who had not among journalists covering the congress. He had covered an earlier trip of Nobel laureates and had been scheduled to leave Friday. Instead, he was stopped at the airport, detained and questioned.
O Ryong Il, secretary-general of the North’s National Peace Committee, said the journalist’s news coverage distorted facts and “spoke ill of the system and the leadership of the country.” He said Wingfield-Hayes wrote an apology, was expelled Monday and would never be admitted into the country again.
The BBC said Wingfield-Hayes was detained Friday along with producer Maria Byrne and cameraman Matthew Goddard, and that all were taken to the Pyongyang airport.
“We are very disappointed that our reporter Rupert Wingfield-Hayes and his team have been deported from North Korea after the government took offence at material he had filed,” the BBC said in a statement. “Four BBC staff, who were invited to cover the Workers Party Congress, remain in North Korea and we expect them to be allowed to continue their reporting.”
On Sunday Kim Jong Un delivered a three-hour speech to delegates Sunday to review the country’s situation and progress since the last congress was held in 1980, before Kim was born. He announced a five-year economic plan, the first one made public since the 1980s.
The speech, in which he said North Korea was a responsible nuclear state that will not use its nuclear weapons first unless its sovereignty was threatened, underscores Kim’s dual focus on building up the military while trying to kick-start the North’s economy, which has seen some growth in recent years but remains hamstrung by international sanctions over its nuclear program.
Kim identified a number of areas as critical to the economy, including the country’s power supply, agriculture and light-manufacturing production. He stressed that the country needs to increase its international trade and engagement in the global economy, but didn’t announce any significant reforms or plans to adopt capitalist-style marketization.
The congress was expected to go on for a couple more days, though no date has been announced, and surprises can never be ruled out.
Mass rallies will likely be held to mark its conclusion in a celebratory fashion.