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What to expect from a rare North Korean gathering

The 30-something North Korean ruler wants all eyes on him

Following a series of failed missile tests and a claim of a hydrogen bomb during the past few months, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is preparing his nation for an historic political gathering beginning Friday.

Known as the Congress of the Workers' Party, the last such gathering was in 1980 to present Kim's father, then-heir apparent Kim Jong Il.

Friday's event in one of the world's most secretive nations will be only the seventh party congress in the country's history. And regime changes could be unveiled, according to North Korea watchers. In particular, there could be announcements related to a broad generational shift to younger government officials and ruling elites.

"He wants to go into this congress and get rid of a lot of older generation people, and replace them with younger people," said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. "What it appears that he's trying to do is to prove that he's in power, that's he's capable, that youth can now take this country to new heights."

Kim himself is believed to be his early 30s, and has been in charge since after the death of his father in late 2011.

And if a revolving door of top leaders is any indication since Kim's ascension, it seems lonely at the top — especially in a place like North Korea.

Kim, so far, doesn't appear to have the equivalent of a deputy or trusted number two man. In contrast, his late father's inner circle had included Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un's late uncle who was executed in 2103. Jang had unique access in the ruling elite and was a go-between with Chinese leadership. He also ran a vast, multinational ring of state trading companies that generated income for the North. He was the equivalent of an entrepreneurial superstar and prince maker, according to experts.

"This party congress is all about him" -Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp.

Jang's execution eliminated, arguably, the most influential senior party official remaining from Kim's father's era, according to a 2013-14 report from the Pentagon to Congress.

Young leader Kim, meanwhile, has been cleaning house and reshuffling top brass since taking over the helm.

"He's up to now five defense ministers he has replaced in four years. That's an incredible pace," said Bennett. "His dad replaced three in 17 years. And two of them died of old age."

And like any rogue dictator wary of loyalty and broad economic stability, cracking down on activity is an effective strategy.

Citing a South Korean official, North Korea apparently has banned weddings and funerals to tighten security for the party congress, The Sunday Times reported.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) gives field guidance during a visit to the Tonghungsan Machine Plant under the Ryongsong Machine Complex in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 2, 2016.
KCNA | Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) gives field guidance during a visit to the Tonghungsan Machine Plant under the Ryongsong Machine Complex in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on April 2, 2016.

"The party congress, I would argue, is a huge, big, major deal. And he [Kim] doesn't want weddings getting in the way of that. He doesn't want people celebrating something else," Bennett said. "The ban on marriages and those kinds of things, as I understand it, it's just this week that that's really occurring. But he wants the focus on him. This party congress is all about him."

Kim is likely feeling the heat after experts disputed the North's claims of a hydrogen bomb test earlier this year. But still there are ongoing concerns. Could Kim be under pressure to attempt a second H-bomb test and fuel the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe?

Meanwhile, improvement to the North Korean economy and promises to raise the standard of living have yet to materialize.

In 2013-2014, the regime expanded the number of economic development zones for foreign investors from five to 25. But the initiative remains in its infancy, according to the CIA. Firm political control remains the priority.

Kim also faces toughened United Nations sanctions on the North, though the impact will take time. And it's unclear to what extent China, North Korea's strongest ally, will cooperate with those intensified sanctions.

Being a nuclear-weapons power is a priority for the North.

The ruling elite bankrolls its nuclear ambitions through varied sources of income including exported minerals and other commodities. Other sources of cash flow include exported North Korean slave labor to China and as far away as Europe, according to United Nations documents, congressional testimony and research by North Korea experts.

Meanwhile, North Korean per capita GDP in 2013 was about $1,800, according to the CIA Factbook. Economic statistics suggest that by 2005, North Korean GDP overall had retreated to late-1980s levels, according to experts. In contrast, South Korean per capita GDP has soared from around $1,200 in the early 1960s to more than $22,000 today.

The regime still cannot feed its own people without outside food aid. North Koreans rely on massive black markets in big cities and the countryside to buy rice, produce, beer and school supplies — often with hard Chinese currency. These markets essentially are tolerated by the government and have become permanent fixtures in the economy.

And Kim already has warned of potential economic difficulty akin to the 1990s, which was marked by widespread famine.

"He's announced that they could go into another period of serious difficulty like in the '90s," Bennett said. "And so he is worried apparently, and trying to prep the people to recognize this problem could be developing."

Kim, meanwhile, continues to impose his will among some 25 million North Koreans.

The number of North Koreans defecting to South Korea has declined in the last four years. Illustrative of the crackdown along the porous North Korean-Chinese border, more than 1,510 North Korean refugees entered the South in 2013, according to the latest South Korean government data. In 2008, around 2,800 refugees entered the South — a roughly 46 percent decline.

And those refugees have included older escapees. "The impression I get is that the number of senior defectors that have occurred has really ramped up in the last year or so," said Bennett.

Looking to the party congress and beyond, there's likely to be some degree of generational change. But how radical remains to be seen.

"What it will illustrate, once we see what he does, is who is he scared of. Who is he really concerned about?" Bennett said. "How do his changes potentially solve his insecurities?"