Kim Jong-un north korea.jpg
Photograph: EPA/KCNA/HANDOUT

The North Korean capital has had a makeover in preparation for the country's biggest political spectacle in years.

Pyongyang's lampposts have been repainted and its roads resurfaced. Half the buildings along the banks of the Taedong River where it runs through the centre have been torn down, "presumably to have them replaced by imposing new developments," a Western visitor said.

Large numbers of people are on the streets of the city, "some of them carrying plastic flowers and similar items to mark the celebrations," the visitor said. The number of vehicles with loudspeakers has also risen.

The "70-day campaign of loyalty" - intended to prepare the population for the first congress of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) since 1980 - is coming to an end.

Ahead of the opening of the congress on Friday, state media have been reporting favourable economic data daily, such as a rise in coal production and factories exceeding their targets, in line with the socialist system set up by Kim Il Sung, the state's post-World War II founder.

There was comparatively little information on what would be discussed at the congress, which was first announced in the autumn.

Observers in South Korea agree that current leader Kim Jong Un, thought to be about 33 years old, aims to use the most important political gathering in decades to buttress his power in the one-party state.

It is also thought likely that he will push through changes in the party leadership and announce new targets for economic development.

In formal terms the party congress, which was originally supposed to be held every five years, is the WPK's most important gathering.

Kim, now in his fifth year as leader, "wants to show the world and the domestic population that his position is consolidated and he is the sole leader of North Korea," said Park Hyeong Jung, a political researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) in Seoul.

Park noted that the communist regime in the North had recently enhanced the personality cult around Kim.

It is possible that he will be confirmed as first secretary of the WPK. His father Kim Jong Il bears the title of "eternal general secretary" in tribute to his rule from 1994 to 2011.

"Whether he can get a new title is unclear. It's not that important, and it would be just a formality," the analyst said. Apart from the party, Kim relies on the military for backing.

So will the WPK congress, as North Korean state propaganda declares, draw "the world's attention" with a "historic event"?

Pyongyang has certainly raised the temperature since the beginning of the year with its nuclear and missile testing, paired with threats of an attack on South Korea and the US.

Kim's actions have led to rising tensions with the United States, its Western allies and even Pyongyang's only major friend, China.

Building the country's military nuclear capability along with its economic base lies at the centre of Kim Jong Un's policies - a course that many observers in South Korea and the West see as ridden with contradiction and doomed to failure.

North Korea describes its controversial nuclear weapons development as essential for defending the country against the United States, which it accuses of harbouring hostile intentions.

At the beginning of March the UN Security Council tightened sanctions on Pyongyang in response to North Korea's fourth nuclear test and a missile launch, although observers are divided on the effectiveness of the sanctions.

The view from Seoul is that even if Pyongyang is feeling the pressure of sanctions, the WPK congress will nevertheless give resounding backing to the third Kim's rule.

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