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(LEAD) N.K.'s revival of diplomacy panel seen aimed at improving external ties: Seoul

All Headlines 13:50 April 12, 2017

(ATTN: ADDS more details throughout)

SEOUL, April 12 (Yonhap) -- South Korea said Wednesday that North Korea appears to have revived a parliamentary foreign affairs commission to improve its relations with the external world on the basis of its pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles.

North Korea set up the foreign affairs commission for the first time in 19 years at its key assembly meeting Tuesday, a move seen aimed at beefing up its diplomacy amid tough international sanctions.

Former North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong was elected to lead the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) Diplomatic Commission, whose members included Ri Son-gwon, the head of North Korea's agency handling inter-Korean affairs, and Kim Kye-gwan, a vice foreign minister.

"North Korea is pursuing conflicting policy goals of developing nuclear weapons and improving its economy and external relationship," Lee Duk-haeng, spokesman for the Ministry of Unification, told a regular press briefing. "The creation of the commission may show that North Korea has an interest in attaining other goals than nuclear weapons."

But the spokesman also called for prudence in reading the North's intentions as North Korea also vowed Tuesday to become a nuclear and rocket powerhouse at a separate commemorative meeting.

"It is an expression of the country's willingness to pay attention to its external relationship while focusing on nuclear weapons and missiles," Lee added.

The SPA, North Korea's legislative body, is the highest organ of state power under the constitution, but it actually rubber-stamps decisions by the ruling Workers' Party of Korea (WPK).

The foreign affairs panel was created in 1989 under the late founder Kim Il-sung's regime but was abolished nine years later following a revision of the constitution under his son Kim Jong-il's reign.

"North Korea appears to seek to utilize the SPA in improving its external relations as it attempts to break away from its international isolation in the face of tough sanctions regime," the ministry said in a statement.

North Korea is facing deepening diplomatic isolation as its nuclear and missile tests prompted the United Nations Security Council to slap tougher sanctions against Pyongyang twice last year.

Tensions are running high on the Korean Peninsula amid speculation that North Korea may conduct its sixth nuclear test or launch a long-range rocket around key anniversaries in April.

Concerns are also growing that the United States may seek a pre-emptive attack on the North similar to its latest airstrike against Syria. Washington has said "all options are available," including possible military actions to counter North Korea's threats.

This image captured from footage of North Korea's state-run TV broadcaster on April 11, 2017, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attending the fifth session of the 13th Supreme People's Assembly. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

"After South Korea's presidential election in May, the North is expected to aggressively mount a charm offensive to improve its ties with the outside world," said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute.

Ri Su-yong served as North Korea's top diplomat from 2014-2016. He is believed to have been a guardian of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when Kim studied at an international school in Switzerland in the 1990s.

Kim Kye-gwan, a veteran diplomat on U.S. affairs, served as North Korea's top nuclear envoy for the now-stalled six-party denuclearization talks involving the two Koreas, the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

Ken Gause, a senior analyst at the CNA Corp. in the U.S., said the panel could serve as a "reservoir of foreign policy expertise."

The commission "could take the lead in helping Kim Jong-un navigate the challenges both in terms of relations on the peninsula and in the wider international community," he said.

But there are cautious views about North Korea's possible peace offensive as it is too early to judge the role of the commission due to the possibility of Pyongyang's provocations.

"We need to see whether North Korea will conduct provocative acts in a bid to gauge the North's intent to revive the panel," a diplomatic source said.

North Korea marks the 105th birthday of late founder Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current leader, on Saturday. It plans to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the military's creation on April 25.

North Korea is believed to have invited a host of foreign journalists to the country this week, a Seoul government official said, a move that appears to seek to show off the birthday events.

The purpose of the invitations is not known, but there is speculation that North Korea may hold a military parade on Kim's birthday or unveil its intercontinental ballistic missile to foreign media.

(LEAD) N.K.'s revival of diplomacy panel seen aimed at improving external ties: Seoul - 2

sooyeon@yna.co.kr
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