(ATTN: ADDS unification ministry's comment in 5th para)
By Koh Byung-joon
SEOUL, April 13 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has held a long-anticipated session of its rubber-stamp legislature two days later than originally scheduled, state media reported Monday without explaining why the meeting was delayed.
Leader Kim Jong-un apparently did not attend the Supreme People's Assembly meeting held Sunday as the official Korean Central News Agency said the country's No. 2 leader, Choe Ryong-hae, presided over the session.
The SPA session had originally been scheduled to take place on Friday. But the North had been silent up until Monday morning about whether it took place as planned or was postponed amid speculation it might have something to do with the coronavirus pandemic.
In Monday's report, KCNA gave no reason why the session was delayed.
Seoul's unification ministry handling inter-Korean affairs said that the date for the SPA meeting might have been adjusted due to some unspecified "political schedules" for the country.
No major decisions were announced either during Sunday's meeting, such as a message to the United States amid long-stalled nuclear negotiations between the two countries or measures related to efforts to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus.
The KCNA said that Sunday's meeting dealt with budgetary and personnel affairs issues, including electing the country's foreign minister, Ri Son-gwon, as a member of the State Affairs Commission, the North's most powerful decision-making body led by leader Kim.
Foreign Minister Ri's entrance into the commission is not believed to represent any change in his power status because the country's foreign minister has always been an SAC member since the organ was created in 2016.
Ri Son-gwon, who previously dealt with inter-Korean affairs as chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, replaced Ri Yong-ho as the country's foreign minister early this year. The new minister also replaced his predecessor as an SAC member.
Ri Pyong-chol, who spearheaded the North's arms development; Kim Jong-ho, minister of people's security; and Kim Jong-gwan, minister of the People's Armed Forces, were also elected as new SAC members, the KCNA said.
First Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui was not named in the report and photos released by state media showed her sitting in the leadership area, suggesting she might remain an SAC member.
The SPA 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.
Experts said that there appears to have been no such message toward the U.S. during this week's meeting, unlike last April when Kim attended an SPA session and made a policy speech, urging Washington to come up with a new proposal in their nuclear talks.
Nuclear talks have stalled since a no-deal summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi more than a year ago. The talks fell apart as the two sides failed to match Pyongyang's denuclearization steps and Washington's corresponding measures, including sanctions relief.
In late December, leader Kim told a party meeting that he does not feel bound anymore by his self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons, saying that the world will witness a "new strategic weapon" in the near future.
North Korea remains firm that Washington should give up its unilateral demand to resume denuclearization talks.
Last month, Kim Yo-jong, the leader's sister, said in a statement that bilateral relations and dialogue between North Korea and the U.S. "would be thinkable only when the equilibrium is kept dynamically and morally and justice ensured between the two countries, not merely by the personal letter between the two leaders."
This year's parliamentary session was held despite concerns over the coronavirus pandemic and Pyongyang's intensifying efforts to block an outbreak of the infectious disease on its soil.
North Korea is among just a few countries in the world that claim to have no coronavirus infections, but many outside observers suspect that Pyongyang might be hushing up an outbreak.
The SPA meeting was expected to center on public health and economic measures aimed at cushioning the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sunday's parliamentary session also touched upon budgetary issues, including approval of a 7.4 percent hike in spending on public health, higher than the 5.8 percent increase a year earlier, apparently in consideration of the country's nationwide antivirus efforts.
Budgets for the science and technology and education sectors rose 9.5 percent and 5.1 percent from a year earlier, respectively, KCNA said, adding that spending for national defense will account for 15.9 percent of the country's total expenditures.
Five years after its full nuke armament claim, N. Korea's threat becomes real, further complicated
(News Focus) S. Korea grapples with calls for nuclear armament
Talk of 'normalizing' GSOMIA raises hope, skepticism around Seoul-Tokyo ties
S. Korea, U.S., Japan close ranks amid growing N.K. threats
N. Korea says month-old virus crisis under control, but skepticism lingers