Washington Post correspondent Anna Fifield describes the atmosphere as she arrives in Pyongyang, North Korea. The country is preparing to hold a congress of its ruling Workers’ Party on Friday, May 6. Such an event has not been held since 1980. (Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The streets of Pyongyang, this most Potemkin of villages, are festooned with red this week, as the North Korean regime prepares to open the seventh congress of its ruling Workers’ Party.

A congress is the highest-level meeting of the communist organization through which the Kim family has kept a grip on the state for three generations, and this will be the first such confab since 1980 — several years before the current leader, Kim Jong Un, was born.

And no effort is being spared in the lead-up to the event.

The entire country has been caught up in a “70-day speed campaign” to prepare for the congress, painting buildings bright colors, decorating hedges with colored lights and attaching red Workers’ Party flags to street lamps — which, unusually, are illuminated.

On almost every block in the center of this showcase capital, hand-painted red-and-white signs feature slogans such as “Together with the party forever.” On Tuesday night, hundreds of people gathered near Kim Il Sung Square in the driving rain to practice for a torchlight parade.

With many adults out working until after 10 p.m., residents of Pyongyang and recent visitors say the 70-day campaign has had a much greater impact on the state’s ability to function properly than the sanctions imposed following North Korea’s January nuclear test.

But what will take place at the congress this week is, like many things about North Korea, unknown to outsiders.

China and the Soviet Union used congresses to announce major new policy changes, such as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” under Deng Xiaoping and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev. At the last congress in North Korea, 36 years ago, Kim Il Sung, the country’s founding president, presented his son, Kim Jong Il, as his successor.

While some analysts expect significant policy announcements or personnel changes, others are betting that Kim Jong Un, the founder’s grandson, will play it safe.

“There is a general superstition about big announcements in North Korea,” said Michael Madden, who runs the North Korean Leadership Watch website. “They don’t want to announce a huge policy and have it be a failure. They don’t want a whole lot of external observers nitpicking them to death.”

Madden instead expects Kim, who promised to raise living standards when he took over at the end of 2011, to focus on the economy. “This is about putting together some economic policy modifications that they’re going to put in place over the next three to five years,” he said.

Kim has already allowed more of the market reforms that began under his father, tolerating additional private trade and enabling people to earn livelihoods that are not dependent on the cash-strapped state. He also changed the agricultural quota system, allowing farmers to keep or sell more of their crops.

View of pedestrians as they pass by one of many scenes of the late Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea on May 3, 2016. Numerous media are descending on Pyongyang this week as the ruling Workers' Party holds it's seventh congress, a rare and potentially significant gathering. The last time the party met was in 1980. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

But those changes have been tentative, and most have not been officially announced, enabling the regime to roll them back if they do not work — or if they work too well.

The economy has been growing in recent years, thanks in part to a commodity boom and heavy demand in neighboring China for North Korea’s coal, iron ore and other minerals. That has enabled Kim to spruce up the capital, building new apartment towers and restaurants, as well as amusement parks and even a dolphinarium.

Now, China’s economy is slowing, and tightened international sanctions on North Korea following its nuclear and missile tests this year have been designed to hurt the regime.

There will be no mention of that at the congress, North Korea analysts said. Instead, the proceedings will include plenty of breathy exhortations about Kim Il Sung, the “eternal president” of North Korea, and Kim Jong Il, the father of the current leader.Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, expects a significant reordering in the Workers’ Party.

Already, regional party conferences have elected Kim Jong Un as their delegate to the congress. They cited the way he has strengthened the Workers’ Party and “enhanced its leading ability in every way, fully displaying the dignity and might of Juche Korea,” according to the state media.

“Juche” is North Korea’s homegrown ideology that is often translated as “self-reliance” — a mantra here even though North Korea has relied on China and, previously, the Soviet Union to keep it afloat.

“I think a big change from this party congress will be the shuffling of positions,” he said. “They’ve been going through the backgrounds of all the middle- and high-level officials for evidence of corruption and wrongdoing,” he said, adding that this explains some of the purges and disappearances of recent months.

Whatever comes out of the congress, almost everyone agrees that it is part of Kim’s effort, in his fifth year in power, to elevate the status of the Workers’ Party, restoring the predominance it had under his grandfather and effectively relegating the military to second place. By holding the congress, Kim could be trying to revive the institutions of the party and return the state to a more predictable pattern of governance.

But what he is certainly doing is trying to bolster his legitimacy as the leader of North Korea and show himself in firm control of the party and, by extension, the country, analysts said.

Kim Il Sung spent a good two decades preparing to transfer power to Kim Jong Il, and a full 14 years passed between Kim Jong Il’s public anointment and his succession to the leadership. But Kim Jong Un had little more than a year between being announced and inheriting the family dynasty. And he was not even 30 when he succeeded his father, a shockingly young age in a country that prizes seniority.

Lee Jong-seok, a former South Korean unification minister, said the congress was part of the young leader’s rites of passage.

“When you get your driver’s license, you’re nervous for the first few years, but you build confidence as you get better,” Lee said. “Kim Jong Un has had no one to tell him how to drive.”

Now, he wants to show how comfortable he is at the steering wheel.

Read more