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Economic, health issues likely to take center stage at N.K. parliamentary meeting amid virus fight: experts

All News 11:54 April 09, 2020

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- Economic and domestic issues are expected to take center stage at North Korea's major parliamentary meeting this week, amid the ongoing fight against the new coronavirus and concerns over the fallout from the pandemic, experts said Thursday.

The Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), the North's rubber-stamp parliament, is to meet on Friday. It usually holds a plenary session every April, mostly to deal with the state budget and Cabinet reshuffle.

Such meetings have been closely monitored abroad for any glimpse into the reclusive country's policy direction, including its stance on denuclearization talks with the United States.

This week's meeting, however, will likely center on discussions of major domestic issues, given that Pyongyang has been making all-out efforts to block the outbreak of COVID-19, experts said.

"With the whole nation fighting against the coronavirus, the upcoming SPA meeting will likely focus on public health and economic issues to minimize the negative impact of the global pandemic on its economy," said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University.

North Korea is among just a few countries in the world that claim to have no coronavirus infections, generating speculation that it might be hushing up an outbreak. The country remains on high alert, saying anti-virus efforts are a "political issue" that will determine its fate.

Pyongyang has tightened control of its borders with China, where the coronavirus originated in late December. It has also toughened quarantine criteria and restricted the movement of people and goods, calling for "absolute obedience" among its people in state anti-virus guidelines and orders.

In particular, the border closure with China, a neighboring ally on which it depends heavily for overseas trade, could weigh on its already moribund economy long crippled by global sanctions.

The North's top priority would be to assure the public that the government is doing its best to prevent the virus from entering the country while taking care of the public and the national economy in the face of the global pandemic, experts said.

The first session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly, North Korea's parliament, takes place in Pyongyang on April 11, 2019, in this photo released by the Korean Central News Agency the next day. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was reelected as chairman of the country's top decision-making body, the State Affairs Commission, at the meeting. (For Use Only in the Republic of Korea. No Redistribution) (Yonhap)

In a related move, some expect that the North may announce an increase in its budget for public health this week in consideration of its ongoing fight against the virus and a recently announced plan to build a large-scale general hospital in Pyongyang.

Also, considering that this year marks the final year of the North's five-year economic development project, Pyongyang is expected to use the SPA meeting to urge for stepped-up efforts to achieve major economic objectives by the end of this year.

"In the face of the coronavirus fears, the SPA session will likely deal with legislative matters linked to public health issues, such as how to respond to a future outbreak of infectious diseases," Hong Min, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said.

"With the possible fallout from the coronavirus and the looming deadline for the five-year economic development project, it is worth watching how its economic policy and budget distribution will be determined," he added.

Friday's parliamentary meeting also draws keen attention as Pyongyang could send a message to the United States amid a stalemate in denuclearization talks, which have stalled since a no-deal summit in Hanoi between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump in February last year.

North Korea appears to be bracing for a long fight against the U.S. Kim expressed frustration late last year over the deadlocked denuclearization talks, urging for efforts to break through economic challenges confronting the country. The North's media have since urged for intensified efforts to build a self-reliant economy independent of outside support.

Experts say that if there is any foreign policy message for the U.S. during this week's meeting, it would be similar to Pyongyang's previous stance calling for Washington to drop its unilateral demands and return to the negotiating table with more concessions.

The upcoming SPA meeting could also provide clues regarding possible changes in structure and personnel, especially at its foreign ministry handling negotiations with the U.S.

Recently, the North is believed to have launched a new foreign ministry bureau handling negotiations with the U.S., in what appears to be part of a structural reshuffle after Ri Son-gwon was appointed as its new minister late last year.

"Given that a new foreign ministry bureau was launched, there is a possibility that the North could disclose a change in the ministry's structure and personnel during this week's meeting," Hong said.

"Creating a bureau handling negotiations with the U.S. appears to signal the North's intention not to ditch previous agreements with Washington, and also its readiness to resume talks whoever comes to the White House," he added.

It is still unclear whether leader Kim will attend the SPA meeting. Observers say that he is unlikely to join the session as he was not among deputies elected in March last year to the parliament.

Kim has attended seven out of 11 SPA sessions held since he took office in late 2011. He made his first policy speech during the meeting in April last year, held about two months after the Hanoi summit, urging Washington to come up with a new proposal in their nuclear talks.


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