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 and ushering in a new era of leadership.
The new title was announced Monday during the roughly 10 minutes that a small group of foreign media, was allowed to watch the congress in the ornate April 25 House of Culture.
It was the first time since the congress began Friday that any of the more than 100 foreign journalists invited were allowed to view any of the proceedings. Earlier Monday, three BBC journalists were 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 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.
By calling a congress — something his father never did — he has also demonstrated what may be a leadership style more like that of his charismatic grandfather, who worked through party organs more than Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il preferred using his own network of trusted individuals to get things done.
Officially bringing more people into his inner circle, Kim filled two vacancies on the powerful Presidium of the party’s central committee. Senior party official Choe Ryong Hae regained a seat that he had lost; once considered Kim Jong Un’s No. 2, he had been briefly banished to a rural collective farm last year for re-education.
Premier Pak Pong Ju was also named to the Presidium. Other members are Kim Jong Un himself; Kim Yong Nam, who as parliament leader is the country’s nominal head of state; and Hwang Pyong So, the top political officer of the Korean People’s Army. Kim Yong Nam, 88, stayed on despite speculation from North Korea-watchers that he might lose his position because of his age.
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.” The BBC was among the media organizations allowed into the congress Monday.
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.