North Korea has announced its first "five-year plan" since the 1980s, with leader Kim Jong Un issuing instructions "for developing the Korean revolution on a higher stage".

The prominence put on the economy at the first congress of the ruling Workers' Party to be held in 36 years underscores the emphasis Kim, the third-generation leader of North Korea, has placed on improving living standards and, at the same time, pursuing nuclear weapons. But it is something of a risky move for Kim, because he could be held accountable for it.

Also at the congress, Kim said North Korea would not use its nuclear weapons unless its sovereignty was violated, a familiar refrain from Pyongyang, which presents its nuclear and missile program as necessary for self-defense. Kim has lauded North Korea's advances in nuclear technology, as South Korean officials continue to warn that a fifth test could be imminent.

The surprisingly full remarks from Kim were reported on North Korea's state television and in the official media. Foreign journalists allowed to travel to Pyongyang for the congress, including The Washington Post, have not been given any access to the forum, apart from being taken to a street corner across from the venue.

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The agenda for the congress includes reviewing the party's work and rules, electing Kim to the top position in the party and filling other senior positions, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

Analysts seized on the news that Kim has announced a plan for developing North Korea's economy, which remains in dire shape, despite growing modestly in the past few years. International sanctions imposed this year after nuclear and ballistic missile tests are expected to create additional challenges.

Military officers applaud as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives speech at the party congress.
Military officers applaud as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gives speech at the party congress.

Michael Madden, who runs the North Korea Leadership Watch site, said the plan was a "big deal" because Kim was taking public responsibility for economic development, something that his father never did.

It has appeared that Kim Jong Un has been trying to rule like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who placed more importance on the Workers' Party than on the military, than his father, Kim Jong Il, who promoted a "military first" policy.

"The announcement of a five-year economic plan slightly proves the hypothesis that Kim Jong Un is ruling like his grandfather - he even appropriated a Kim Il Sung policy direction here - with more formal lines of control and authority like a five-year economic plan," Madden said.

In an address during the congress, which opened Friday, Kim announced a "five-year strategy for the state economic development from 2016 to 2020." Such plans are commonplace in communist systems, but North Korea hasn't produced one since the 1980s.

Kim told the meeting that the period since the last Workers' Party congress was an "unprecedentedly grim struggle" in North Korea's long history and years of glorious victory which witnessed great changes.

Over the next five years, North Korea should "fly the flag of victory" and become a "scientific and technological, economic and highly-civilized power," Kim said.

"It is imperative to carry through the five-year strategy for the state economic development from 2016 to 2020," Kim reportedly told the congress. "It is necessary to further increase the might of the politico-ideological power and military power."

North Koreans read their country's leader Kim Jong Un's speech published in the local newspaper. Photo / AP
North Koreans read their country's leader Kim Jong Un's speech published in the local newspaper. Photo / AP

Although there were few other details, analysts said it was remarkable that Kim had spoken publicly about his plans for economic growth. His father, who died in 2011 and presided over a period of economic devastation and widespread famine, did not utter public statements that he could be held accountable for.

But Kim Jong Un has been promoting a "byungjin" - or "simultaneous pursuit" - policy under which he has been trying to grow the economy and develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles to deliver them.

The South's Bank of Korea estimates that the North's economy has been growing at about 1 or 2 per cent a year, but analysts such as Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Kookmin University in Seoul, think that its growth has been much higher, potentially as high as the 7 per cent estimate from the Hyundai Economic Research Institute in Seoul.

Recent events also prove that North Korea is making technical advances on its weapons programme. North Korean scientists would have learned more about their technical abilities, and shortcomings, during the nuclear test in January and a long-range rocket launch in February. They will also have learned from their more recent failed missile launches, Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, has said.

During the congress, Kim repeated the line that North Korea would not go on the offensive with its weapons.

"As a responsible nuclear weapons state, our republic will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces with nukes," Kim told the meeting, according to KCNA.