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North Korea controls agenda as world's media pour in

AFPAFP 6/05/2016 Simon Martin
A man takes a photograph in front of the 'April 25 Palace', the venue of the 7th Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang, on May 6, 2016 © Provided by AFP A man takes a photograph in front of the 'April 25 Palace', the venue of the 7th Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang, on May 6, 2016

When one of the world's most secretive states opens the door to the international media, it keeps a firm grip on the handle.

Some 130 journalists flocked to North Korea at the express invitation of the Pyongyang authorities to cover the opening on Friday of a rare ruling party congress.

They got within 200 metres (yards) of the venue, the April 25 Palace, and that was where they were stopped -- on the other side of the road, under a steady drizzle that had been falling on the capital all morning.

Instead of a rare glimpse of the country's highest-level political meeting for almost four decades, the media were then offered a tour of the March 26 Electric Cable Factory.

North Korea issues reporting visas sparingly and escorts all journalists to make sure it sets the agenda and gets its position across.

The intended message behind the cable factory visit was clear -- the North's economy is not collapsing despite Western "lies" and can shrug off sanctions imposed over its nuclear and missile programmes.

A television screen showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is seen at a railway station in Seoul, on May 6, 2016 © Provided by AFP A television screen showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un is seen at a railway station in Seoul, on May 6, 2016

Credit for the factory's achievements is given to the nation's first leader Kim Il-Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-Il.

Three large rooms are devoted to photographs of their trademark "field guidance" to factory staff and workers.

The factory's name commemorates a visit by Kim Il-Sung on March 26, 1968 to advise workers how to organise production.

"Let's go ahead to final victory under the leadership of the great party!" read one of countless written exhortations, depicting soldiers, workers, intellectuals and farmers with noble expressions.

Whatever the true state of the North's economy as the toughest sanctions for two decades take hold, official guides and factory managers were at pains to get their point across.

Men holding umbrellas stand outside the 'April 25 Palace', the venue of the 7th Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang on May 6, 2016 © Provided by AFP Men holding umbrellas stand outside the 'April 25 Palace', the venue of the 7th Workers Party Congress in Pyongyang on May 6, 2016

"Some countries want to punish our country because it has nuclear weapons. They say our economy has almost collapsed. It's a lie," a guide told AFP. "Our economy is self-sufficient. They isolate our country but we can produce everything we need."

Factory general manager Kim Sok-Nam said sanctions had had no effect. "We have a self-reliant economy founded and developed by President Kim Il-Sung."

Among the items on display on the factory floor were a number of large cartons with the logo of the US Dow Chemical Company. There was no information on where they had originally been shipped or when.

The factory also took pains to show off what was described as a social centre for workers, including steam baths, a swimming pool, a clinic and barber. The Kim Jong-Un cut, after the current leader, is said to be the most popular.

The North not only controls the message for foreign media, its own people can struggle to keep abreast of events.

The April 25 Palace, venue of the Workers' Party Congress, is seen ahead of the event in Pyongyang on May 6, 2016 © Provided by AFP The April 25 Palace, venue of the Workers' Party Congress, is seen ahead of the event in Pyongyang on May 6, 2016

State television provided no live coverage of Friday's congress as of early evening, devoting its programming to archive material, films and patriotic concerts.

It began its daily programming earlier than usual, and kicked off with a woman announcer voicing the people's "deepest gratitude" to Kim Jong-Un for preparing this "grand political festival".

And that was almost the only direct mention of the congress for the rest of the day, which was taken up with broadcasts of old films, music concerts and archive footage of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

The early evening news at 5:00 pm (0830 GMT) led with a story about a patriotic song winning a special award and the issue of a new stamp -- neither of them remotely connected to the congress.

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