North Korea prepares for highest political gathering in 3 decades

Story highlights

  • Congress starts at 9 a.m. Friday in a Pyongyang convention center called "April 25 House of Culture"
  • North Koreans work grueling hours to prepare capital for highly anticipated 7th Congress

Pyongyang, North Korea (CNN)The sound of loudspeakers blaring at 6 a.m. is something I've come to expect when traveling to the North Korean capital. The citywide alarm signals the beginning of each new workday. But on this particular morning, the wake-up call went off an hour earlier -- at 5.

For more than two months, most Pyongyang citizens have been expected to rise early and go to bed late. Sometimes they go without sleep at all, so they can fully maximize productivity during the "70-day battle" -- a nationwide call to action by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
    The grueling hours are part of a massive state-mandated drive to prepare Pyongyang for a once-in-a-generation political gathering that begins at 9 a.m. on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET Thursday) in a convention center called "April 25 House of Culture," officials tell CNN.
    To say the upcoming 7th Congress of Workers' Party is a big deal is putting it mildly. It's the highest political gathering that can be held in the country.
    The last time it was hosted in 1980, Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder and President, elevated his son Kim Jong Il to No. 2 in the party, solidifying his position as successor.
    This time around, there is speculation the current supreme leader, believed to be in his 30s, could move away from his father's "military first" ideology and reinforce his own creed of simultaneous nuclear and economic development.
    However, North Korean officials insist the congress is simply a continuation of Kim Jong Il's "revolutionary philosophy" of "single hearted unity" in which there is a "blood kinship" between the leadership, the party and the people.
    Hyon Un Mi, who works as a guide at the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, said she hasn't taken a single day off in the 70-day lead-up to the congress. When she's not giving tours, Hyon works with a crew refurbishing the nearby Kim Il Sung Stadium. And she's overjoyed to do it, she told me.
    "We the Korean people think our leader Kim Jong Un is just like our father, just like our mother. And so we trust him and we do our best for building a thriving country," Hyon said.

    Nuclear concerns

    The congress is also likely to see Marshal Kim, as the supreme leader is known, announce the continuation of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. It's a major reason why many South Korean and U.S. government officials believe a fifth nuclear test could be imminent -- either before or during the congress.
    Kim ordered what was claimed to be a hydrogen bomb test on the same week of his birthday in January. It was followed a month later by a satellite launch, which led the United States and its allies to push for a new round of strong sanctions aimed at halting the regime's nuclear and missile programs.
    In the last few weeks, North Korea has attempted to launch two midrange missiles, both of which are believed to have failed. The government also touted the launch of a missile from a submarine.

    Eyes of the world

    If the North does conduct another nuclear test, the eyes of the world will be watching. Hundreds of international journalists are here to cover the upcoming congress -- a larger number than is usually invited for major events in this nation with a reputation for secrecy.
    Driving through Pyongyang from the airport to our hotel, we encountered a kind of spring cold front that makes you want to run inside and grab a winter blanket. Yet thousands of people in formal attire were hunched under umbrellas, standing in sideways rain in Kim Il Sung Square -- named for North Korea's founding father, who still holds the title of "eternal president" 22 years after his death.
    Apparently they were rehearsing some type of highly choreographed, group display of public devotion to the leadership. And skipping rehearsal isn't an option in a country known for supersize parades to mark major events.
    Despite talk of heightened security, we passed through a single checkpoint on the 20-minute drive from the airport to the hotel downtown.
    As with any reporting trip to North Korea, we were under the constant supervision of government escorts and could never travel freely. Journalists are rarely allowed outside Pyongyang, where defectors have claimed that life is often a daily struggle -- with limited food, scarce power and outdated farming and hospital equipment.
    Out on the streets, people could be seen hanging banners, sweeping sidewalks and planting flowers ahead of the congress. Student bands played patriotic tunes to lift the spirits of citizens and encourage them to work harder.
    Shortly after he took power, Kim Jong Un pledged to improve people's living standards. He has since overseen construction of a long list of public amenities, including a water park, equestrian center, opulent nursery and pediatric hospital.
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    Critics of the government have long claimed these luxuries are reserved only for the most trusted North Koreans, who are privileged enough to live in the showpiece capital.
    This didn't appear to be the case in the parts of Pyongyang we were allowed to see. The city's skyline was surprisingly well-lit at night. People had smartphones and flat-screen televisions.
    At a new Pyongyang department store, I met a primary school teacher named Kim Song Rim, who was dressed to the nines in colorful, modern clothing -- likely imported from China.
    Her 2-year-old son wore an outfit far sharper than anything I had at that age. I asked her if everyone in North Korea lives the way she does.
    "Yes, simply look around," she said. "We are all equal here."