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(3rd LD) N. Korea opens rubber-stamp parliament, skipped by leader

All Headlines 22:26 April 09, 2010

(ATTN: CORRECTS 3rd para to say leader was not mentioned among attendants; TRIMS)
By Sam Kim

SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- North Korea held the annual meeting of its rubber-stamp parliament on Friday, its official media reported, a session marked by the absence of leader Kim Jong-il and a renewed focus on drives to resuscitate the communist state's moribund economy.

It was unclear why Kim missed the meeting, which was scrutinized by observers for a hint into the secretive state's policy directives and organizational changes. The 68-year-old leader has skipped the annual meeting of the Supreme People's Assembly every other year since 2004.

North Korean TV did not mention his name when it introduced a list of key participants. The reports by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), monitored in Seoul, did not reveal any sign of the hereditary power transfer apparently underway in Pyongyang, either.

The 687-member assembly gives routine approval to Kim's decisions, ratifying an array of policy aims and approving pre-ordained Cabinet shake-ups. South Korea's Unification Ministry likened its opening session last year to the inauguration of a new government in other countries.

"The Cabinet will expand and develop foreign trade and conduct economic and technical cooperation with other countries in a bold and big manner," the KCNA quoted a senior North Korean representative as telling the session.

Members of the assembly also pledged efforts to normalize production in light and agricultural industries while making an unspecified revision to the North Korean constitution, the KCNA said.

North Korea outlined its goal to boost production of basic necessities and food in the New Year's Day statement, suggesting the regime is trying to reassert state control of market activities.

As part of the bid to curb a burgeoning merchant class, North Korea went ahead with a surprise currency reform late last year, but it backfired, worsening inflation and food shortages and triggering social unrest in some parts of the country, officials here say.

The Cabinet "will strictly adhere to the socialist principles in economic guidance and management," the KCNA quoted Premier Kim Yong-il as saying. Kim stressed "principles of self-reliance and profitability."

The impoverished communist state held its first session of the newly elected Supreme People's Assembly last year, reappointing leader Kim Jong-il to another five-year term as head of the National Defense Commission, Pyongyang's highest seat of power.

This year's session comes as North Korea remains reluctant to return to the stalled six-party talks on its nuclear weapons programs. Pyongyang says it will rejoin the aid-for-denuclearization talks only if Washington agrees to launch separate negotiations toward a peace treaty to formally close the 1950-53 Korean War and the United Nations lifts its sanctions on the country.

The six-nation talks include the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Russia and Japan. In a Foreign Ministry statement simultaneously released Friday, North Korea lashed out at the new U.S. nuclear policy, vowing to beef up its atomic arsenal.

Despite the deadlock, analysts and South Korean officials believe the North will return to the talks, as its economic troubles deepened following the currency revaluation.

The reform, which knocked two zeros off existing bank notes, reportedly led to the execution of a senior official in charge of it, while Pyongyang has eased its crackdown on free markets that had mushroomed to make up for the failure of the state rationing system.

Suspension of a joint tourism project with South Korea deepened the North's economic troubles by siphoning off a source of hard currency for Pyongyang. In anger over Seoul's reluctance to resume cross-border tours to Mount Kumgang, the North said Thursday it would freeze South Korean assets at the mountain resort and expel personnel from the enclave.

Friday's assembly also came as South Korean officials and analysts speculated that a visit by the aging North Korean leader to China is imminent. Beijing hosts the stalled six-nation talks and has been a go-between for their resumption.

The legislative meeting was closely watched for signs of a successor to Kim. The reclusive leader is widely believed to be grooming his third and youngest son, Jong-un, as heir to the communist dynasty, but the regime has not made any announcement on a successor.

Talk of a successor intensified after Kim reportedly suffered a stroke in 2008.


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