A North Korean woman cleans the frame of a large mosaic representing former leaders Kim Il Sung (L) and Kim Jong Il at the Mansudae Art Studio in Pyongyang, North Korea. This week the country is preparing for a rare Workers' Party congress.
EPA/FRANCK ROBICHON

North Korea will hold a congress of its ruling Workers’ Party starting this Friday – the seventh time in the country’s history that such an event has been held, but the first time since 1980. This is the highest-level meeting that can be convened in North Korea, and Kim Jong Un’s regime has been pulling out all the stops to prepare for it.

A “70 day speed campaign” had been in effect until last week, with the Pyongyang-wide morning alarm going off at 5 a.m. instead of the usual 6 a.m. to rouse everyone from ministry officials to laborers and get them preparing the city for the congress. Residents and recent visitors say that buildings have been painted, roads have been marked, lawns have been manicured. One described the activity as “frantic.”

Clearly, this is a big deal for the regime. Here’s why.

So North Korea’s communist cadres are having a pow-wow this weekend? Explain.

There are two key institutions in North Korea: the military and the Workers’ Party, the communist structure that controls the state. Its symbols are the usual hammer and sickle, but North Korea has added a brush to symbolize learning. There’s a monument to the Workers’ Party in the middle of Pyongyang. Party membership confers elite status in North Korea, with members getting the best jobs and apartments, and special privileges.

Kim Il Sung, the founding father of North Korea (and its “eternal president” today, 22 years after his death) was very much a party man, emphasizing the party and North Korea’s special flavor of communism — called “juche,” or self-reliance — above all else.

His son and the second in the dynasty, Kim Jong Il, was more of an army man, putting in place the “songun” or “military first” policy. While his father first promoted the idea that North Korea should have nuclear weapons, it was Kim Jong Il who really made this idea a reality and ordered the country’s first nuclear test, in 2006.

But Kim Jong Un has been modeling himself after his grandfather, elevating the party. Last year’s celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the party were a display of might.

So the congress takes place in this context.

What is a congress anyway? I’m thinking this has nothing to do with a lower house and an upper house and a speaker and all that.

Right. In the communist system, a congress is technically the highest ruling body of the Workers' Party (although in reality, in North Korea, the highest ruling body is Kim Jong Un's). This event has been a forum to trumpet the importance of the party and sometimes to unveil major new policies. In 1982, Deng Xiaoping used the 12th congress of the Chinese Communist Party to put forward the idea of developing “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” while in 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev used the 27th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to announce his reform and opening policies, perestroika and glasnost.

What happened at North Korea’s previous congresses?

The first congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea was held in 1946, a year after the end of World War II and the division of the Korean Peninsula into the northern half, which was taken under the wing of Communist China and the Soviet Union, and the south, which moved under the United States’ umbrella. There were four more until 1970, then another in 1980. All of these occurred while Kim Il Sung was leader.

At the congress in 1980, which lasted four days, Kim Il Sung announced his son, Kim Jong Il, as his successor. It also emphasized juche, North Korea’s homegrown ideology usually translated as “self-reliance," over traditional Marxist-Leninist communism.

 In this October 1980 file photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, distributed by Korea News Service, leader Kim Jong Il attends the first phase of the 6th Congress of Workers' Party of (North) Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File) In this October 1980 file photo from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, distributed by Korea News Service, leader Kim Jong Il attends the first phase of the 6th Congress of Workers' Party of (North) Korea. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)

Representatives of the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were in attendance that year. Oh, and Robert Mugabe was there. Yes, that Robert Mugabe.

The Soviet Union no longer exists, and China’s leadership is exasperated with Kim Jong Un’s nuclear defiance, so high-level delegates from next door are not expected. There could be visitors from friendly communist (nominally, at least) countries such as Cuba and Vietnam. And Mugabe is now 92 but still running Zimbabwe and still able to travel — he was in Japan last month. Let’s see if he shows up again.

So why the 36-year hiatus between congresses?

Good question. Short answer: We don’t know. But we do know that the 1980s were a tumultuous time for communism, with economic opening in China and in the Soviet Union (and we know what happened in the latter case). Then the 1990s was a catastrophic decade for North Korea, with the collapse of the Soviet Union followed by the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 and years of famine that killed hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of North Koreans.

But as to why there was no congress held in the 2000s, or why Kim Jong Il chose to unveil his son as his successor at a lesser party conference, rather than a full party congress, in 2010. Well, that’s anyone’s guess.

What should we expect from this congress then?

Well, there are two schools of thought: not much, or a lot.

On the “not much” front: some analysts think that the Kim regime will use the congress to signal a return to what Rudiger Frank, a North Korea analyst at the University of Vienna, calls a “new normal.” By this, he means a continuation of the “half-hearted strategy of adjusting the old system,” as we’ve seen North Korea do over recent years with its tweaks to economic policy.

Given Kim Jong Un’s elevation of the party, you could say that holding a congress is only natural, and that it would entail lots of grandiose statements about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities and about the internal strength of the party, as well as lots of glory for the Three Kims.

On the “a lot” side: Perhaps Kim Jong Un will use this event to unveil some major new policy or direction for North Korea, which has found itself increasingly isolated — even from China, the closest thing it has to a friend — this year since carrying out a nuclear test and a long-range rocket launch.

Kim Jong Un has already announced some big initiatives, and he didn’t do them at a congress. For example, his “byungjin” policy — the idea that North Korea can pursue economic development and a nuclear weapons program at the same time (or, to put it another way, to have both guns and butter) — was announced at a meeting of the central committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea in 2013.

The young man has arrived?

Kim Il Sung groomed his son for a good 20 years to be his successor, promoting him through a series of posts and propagating a myth around him. (According to the official record, Kim was born on the sacred mountain Paekdu under a bright star at night.) But Kim Jong Un had none of that. He was presented at the party conference in October 2010, and his father was dead just 14 months later. Not only did he not have a narrative, but he wasn’t even 30, making him incredibly young in a hierarchical Confucian system that prizes age.

His first five years have been notable for a number of high-profile purges — including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, and his defense minister, Hyon Yong Chol — and personnel changes. He’s been clearing out the old and replacing them with the new, or the new-ish.

Chances are that Kim will use this congress to show he’s in charge and to cement his legitimacy as the third-generation leader of the world’s only communist dynasty.

“He wants to keep everyone toeing the line,” said one foreign resident of Pyongyang. “He wants to consolidate his grip on power.”

Economy, economy, economy.

As far as themes go, the economy will likely be front and center. From the moment he took over, Kim Jong Un has been talking about improving the lives of the North Korean people. With the amount of information that’s getting into North Korea these days, many people now know that they’re not living in a “socialist paradise,” as the regime has been telling them.

Kim has particularly focused on keeping the elites in Pyongyang happy, building fun fairs and water parks and even a dolphinarium. There is a fancy new district for scientists, who are at the center of the two-track “byungjin” policy, and high-rise riverfront apartments that some North Koreans say make the capital look like the glittering metropolis of Dubai.

Whether he offers more rhetoric or real reforms, well, you'll just have to wait for Friday for that.