PYONGYANG, North Korea — After a ruling-party congress in which leader Kim Jong Un enshrined his hold on power and his commitment to developing nuclear weapons, hundreds of thousands of North Koreans celebrated with a massive civilian parade Tuesday featuring floats bearing patriotic slogans and marchers with flags and pompoms.
Kim presided over the parade and waved down to the crowd from his “tribune of honor” on a balcony of the Grand People’s Study House, which overlooks the square. North Koreans had been practicing roles in the parade and other events for weeks, and participation is considered mandatory.
“We had been practicing every other day for this event,” said Yun Song Hua, a 25-year-old medical student at Kim Il Sung University. “I’m proud to be able to participate in an event like this with our leader here with us.”
The two-hour parade started off with a 30-minute speech by Kim Yong Nam, the head of North Korea’s parliament and nominal head of state. Foreign journalists in Pyongyang for the congress had to gather hours earlier, at 5:30 a.m., to go through strict security screening. They had to surrender all telephones and communication devices, which is typical whenever foreign media cover an event where Kim Jong Un is present.
The four-day congress completed Monday was the authoritarian country’s first since 1980, before Kim was even born. The body of more than 3,400 delegates endorsed his nuclear and economic policies, promoted his favored officials and gave him a new title of party chairman.
Kim told delegates the North would not use its nuclear weapons first unless its sovereignty is threatened and hinted he was willing to work with countries that had previously been hostile toward the North if they are willing to work with him.
Though big on pomp and visuals intended to inspire awe, the congress was first and foremost a means for Kim to solidify his standing as the sole leader of the party and formalize the positions of those he trusts. Those include Ri Yong Gil, a senior official South Korea’s intelligence agency had previously said had been executed.
But by calling a congress — something his father, Kim Jong Il, never did — Kim demonstrated what may also be a leadership style more like that of his charismatic grandfather, national founder Kim Il Sung. Kim Il Sung worked through party organs more than Kim Jong Il, who preferred using his own network of trusted individuals to get things done.
Kim Jong Un spoke several times during the congress — including one speech that lasted three hours and has aired repeatedly on the North’s state-run television. He announced a new five-year plan for the economy, the first made public since the 1980s, to show that improving the nation’s standard of living, which has fallen far behind its neighboring China and rival South Korea, is one of his top priorities.
To do that, he stressed that North Korea must strive to build better trade relations with other countries, though he also remained firm on what the North claims is its right to develop and possess a nuclear arsenal for self-defense.
How North Korea can do both is a question mark.
Its nuclear program has brought a heavy price in sanctions that stifle growth. After its most recent test, which Pyongyang claims was of its first hydrogen bomb, sanctions are at their toughest level in 20 years and the nation is facing increasing isolation from even China, its Korean War ally, with whom trade is essential.
The mixture of what seemed to be overtures for better relations with a hard line on Pyongyang’s right to keep a nuclear deterrent did not resonate much in Washington or Seoul.
South Korean officials quickly wrote it off as nothing new and nothing they could accept.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a press briefing Monday that Washington is more focused on North Korea’s actions than its words.
“Once North Korea demonstrates a commitment to coming back into compliance with those international obligations, the United States and the rest of the international community would be prepared to enter into negotiations with them and begin to give them access to the international community that they’ve been denied for some time now,” Earnest said.
Evans Revere, an expert on Northeast Asia and a former senior State Department official, said the message out of Pyongyang was that nuclear weapons are a permanent fixture in North Korea’s security posture and the announcement it would not use nuclear weapons unless its sovereignty was threatened was an attempt to seek legitimacy as a nuclear-armed state.
“It’s hard to take anything positive from this. The overwhelming message is that they have doubled down on the nuclear issue,” he said. “I don’t think the international community is going to accept that or work with that.”
“The difficult thing for (U.S.) policymakers is, where do you go from here?” said Victor Cha, an expert on North Korea at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served as a top White House official on Asia policy under President George W. Bush.
“If it was ever unclear that they were not going to give up their nuclear weapons, they have made it crystal-clear that they’re not going to,” he said. “Can we still talk about denuclearization, or do we aim for a freeze and a cap? It’s a tough situation.”
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