After weeks of warlike rhetoric, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gathered legislators April 1 for an annual spring parliamentary session that followed a ruling party declaration that nuclear bomb building and a stronger economy were the nation’s top priorities.
The meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly follows near-daily threats from Pyongyang, including vows of nuclear strikes on South Korea and the U.S. The United States, meanwhile, sent F-22 stealth fighter jets to participate in annual war games with South Korea, and the new South Korean president, who has a policy meant to re-engage Pyongyang with talks and aid, told her top military leaders to set aside political considerations and respond strongly should North Korea attack.
Despite the continuing hostility on the peninsula, there has been a noticeable shift in North Korea’s rhetoric to a message that seeks to balance efforts to turn around a moribund economy with nuclear development.
“There was a danger that this was getting to the point … of a permanent war footing,” said John Delury, a North Korea analyst at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “In the midst of this tension and militant rhetoric and posturing, Kim Jong Un is saying, Look, we’re still focused on the economy, but we’re doing it with our nuclear deterrent intact.”
Pyongyang has reacted with anger over routine U.S.-South Korean military drills and a new round of U.N. and U.S. sanctions that followed its Feb. 12 underground nuclear test, the country’s third. Analysts see a full-scale North Korean attack as unlikely and say the threats are more likely efforts to provoke softer policies toward Pyongyang from a new government in Seoul, to win diplomatic talks with Washington and to solidify the young North Korean leader’s military credentials at home.
On Sunday, Kim and top party officials adopted a declaration calling nuclear weapons the “the nation’s life” and an important component of its defense, an asset that wouldn’t be traded even for “billions of dollars.” Pyongyang cites the U.S. military presence in South Korea as a main reason behind its drive to build missiles and atomic weapons. The U.S. has stationed tens of thousands of troops in South Korea since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953.
While analysts call North Korea’s threats largely brinkmanship, there is some fear that a localized skirmish might escalate. Seoul has vowed to respond harshly should North Korea provoke its military. Naval skirmishes in disputed Yellow Sea waters off the Korean coast have led to bloody battles several times over the years. Attacks blamed on Pyongyang in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.
Deputies to North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly gathered in Pyongyang on Monday, although the session’s schedule was unclear.
Under late leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea had typically held a parliamentary meeting once a year. But Kim Jong Un held an unusual second session last September in a sign that he is trying to run the country differently from his father, who died in late 2011.
Parliament sessions, which usually are held to approve personnel changes and budget and fiscal plans, are scrutinized by the outside world for signs of key changes in policy and leadership.
At a session last April, Kim was made first chairman of the powerful National Defense Commission, the body’s top post.
On Sunday, Kim presided over a separate plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, a top decision-making body tasked with organizing and guiding the party’s major projects. The meeting set a “new strategic line” calling for building both a stronger economy and nuclear arsenal.
North Korea’s “nuclear armed forces represent the nation’s life, which can never be abandoned as long as the imperialists and nuclear threats exist on earth,” according to a statement issued by state media after the meeting.
Sunday marked the first time for Kim to preside over the committee meeting. The last plenary session was held in 2010, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry, and before that in 1993.
The plenary statement also called for strengthening the economy, which Kim has put an emphasis on in his public statements since taking power. The U.N. says two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people face regular food shortages.
The decision means North Korea believes it can rebuild the economy while not neglecting its military because it now has nuclear and long-range missile capabilities, said analyst Cheong Seong-jang at South Korea’s Sejong Institute. “It’s like chasing two hares at once,” he said.
The North also named former Prime Minister Pak Pong Ju as a member of the party central committee’s powerful Political Bureau, a sign that he could again play a key role in the North’s economic policymaking process. Pak reportedly was sacked as premier in 2007 after proposing a wage system seen as too similar to U.S.-style capitalism.
“Pak Pong Ju is the face of economic reform, such as it exists — reform with North Korean characteristics as they say,” Delury said.
Economic changes won’t be radical, Delury said, and, for the time being, they’re mostly aspirational. One change could entail a shift of part of the country’s massive military spending into the economy as a whole.
South Korea now faces a major decision. If President Park Geun-hye and her advisers react as her hard-line predecessor did, “then they’re stuck in the same place, where North Korea limps along, but with regime stability,” Delury said. If so, then “the risk of a conflict is like a dark cloud over the next five years of the Park Geun-hye administration. It’s not such an appealing path for her.”