N. Korea Wants Economic And Nuclear Expansion, But One Undercuts The Other : Parallels North Korea's powerful are gathering for their first ruling party congress in decades. Kim Jong Un is working to consolidate his power at home — and regionally — with an expanded nuclear arsenal.
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N. Korea Wants Economic And Nuclear Expansion, But One Undercuts The Other

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N. Korea Wants Economic And Nuclear Expansion, But One Undercuts The Other

N. Korea Wants Economic And Nuclear Expansion, But One Undercuts The Other

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK. This happens in North Korea maybe just once in a generation. The ruling party has gathered in the capital, Pyongyang. Leader Kim Jong Un has laid out his plans for the country's future. As NPR's Elise Hu reports, the new vision for North Korea looks a lot with the old one.

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ELISE HU, BYLINE: Inside a stark white hall with a giant star projected on the ceiling, 3,000 North Korean loyalists filled every seat for the first Worker's Party Congress in 36 years. The outsiders invited to Pyongyang, the showcase capital, have seen only the pageantry on the streets.

JULIE MAKINEN: We've seen people clearly rehearsing around town for the last several days with flags and flowers.

HU: That's the Los Angeles Times Beijing Bureau Chief Julie Makinen. She's among the 100 foreign journalists in North Korea for an 11-day trip overlapping with the rare event. Their hosts drop them off on a street corner within walking distance of the hall, but that's as close as they got.

MAKINEN: Everyone thought we were going to, like, walk over to the building. But instead, they told us to walk back to the buses and drove us back to the hotel.

HU: What can be seen of the Congress is broadcast by state television.

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SUPREME LEADER KIM JONG UN: (Speaking Korean).

HU: Leader Kim Jong Un spoke to thousands of ruling-party elites for a marathon three hours on Saturday with occasional interruptions of frenzied applause from the audience.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).

HU: Kim reaffirmed his country's controversial commitment to nuclear weapons, pledged not to use them unless under threat and laid out a broad five-year economic plan through 2020. That's something the North hasn't had in decades.

ADAM CATHCART: Well, good for them, but it's still central economic planning. They've shown little capacity to kind of carry out previous plans.

HU: Adam Cathcart teaches Chinese history at the University of Leeds and runs Sino-NK, a site digging into Chinese-North Korean relations.

CATHCART: Is there a change in policy line? We don't really see any evidence of that yet.

HU: As with the previous pledge, Kim Jong Un said he wants to, quote, "expand and develop external economic relations." But analysts believe his nuclear ambitions undercut his economic ones. North Korea's insistence on developing nuclear weapons make it such a pariah and a target of strict sanctions that investors, even from longtime time ally China, are staying away.

CATHCART: This notion that, you know, North Korea's going to go forward in some way without Chinese backing and with probably more pressure from China rather than less doesn't bode particularly well on a lot of these promises that Kim Jong Un is making.

HU: For its part, neighboring South Korea responded to Kim's speech by saying it would never accept the North as a nuclear state. South Korean Unification Ministry Spokesman Jeong Joon Hee.

JEONG JOON-HEE: (Through interpreter) Our government will not close the doors on conversation. But if North Korea continues its nuclear weapons and provocations, we will confront them with even stronger sanctions. North Korea will need to show a genuine stance towards denuclearization.

HU: That response is indication nothing the North said this weekend is helping its ties with the rest of the world. But in Pyongyang, there's nothing but praise for the dynastic Supreme Leader, as he's called, at least among the North Koreans who agreed to speak with outside press. Julie Makinen...

MAKINEN: People have the sense that this is, you know, really ushering in the era of Kim Jong Un, I think.

HU: So far, the era of Kim Jong Un is limited to spruced up streets in Pyongyang and a new anthem in his honor.

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in Korean).

HU: "His courage is the heart of North Korea," they sing. But promises so far, don't go much beyond the pomp. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.

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