N Korea looks back to the future

Seoul, May 11: North Korea's first ruling party congress for nearly four decades proclaimed the formal start of the Kim Jong-Un era, but the event was more notable for nods to the past than promises for the future.

Analysts looking for signs of substantive policy shifts or reforms under the young leader were given little to go on, as the 33-year-old Kim signalled few changes at home and a continued foreign policy of belligerent defiance backed by an expanding nuclear arsenal.

seoul, north korea

Widely seen as a formal coronation for Kim, who inherited power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, in late 2011, the congress had always threatened to be more about spectacle than substance.

But even the symbolic highlights were backward looking, with the final session of the four-day conclave on Monday appointing Kim to the post of party chairman.

The "chairman" title was used by his grandfather, the country's revered founding leader Kim Il-Sung, during the 1950s and 60s - a relative golden period of rapid post-Korean War recovery and industrialisation that saw the North's economy race ahead of the capitalist South's.

The young Kim bears a striking physical resemblance to his grandfather - a similarity he has played up in a clear attempt to co-opt the founder's legacy.

During the congress, Kim sported a western-style suit and tie - a look also favoured on occasion by Kim Il-Sung, while Kim Jong-Il always opted for a so-called "Mao suit" buttoned to the neck for formal events.

If the leader's new title and sartorial choices harked back to a previous era, so in one sense did the entire congress, which sealed a comeback - engineered by Kim Jong-Un - for a ruling party that had ceded significant political power to the military during his father's rule.

"It's a return to the ruling structure of his grandfather, when the whole governing system was more functional," said Michael Madden, editor of North Korea Leadership Watch website.

"It seems Kim Jong-Un is not only interested in looking like his father, he also wants to govern in the same way," Madden said. Elections to key party organisations at the congress saw a cut in the number of uniformed military officers in senior posts, and the downsizing of the party's central military commission.

But the generational shift in the senior leadership that some analysts had predicted never came about. "You have to remember that these systems move at a glacial pace," said Madden. "We were never going to see a bunch of 25-year-olds suddenly climbing on to the rostrum."

On the policy front, the congress largely opted to reinforce the status quo, trumpeting the North's view of itself as a full-fledged nuclear weapons state and firmly endorsing the push to both improve and expand the country's nuclear arsenal.


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