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North Korea holds annual parliamentary meeting amid US pressure

North Korea's parliament convenes Tuesday for an annual meeting that's expected to commemorate Kim Jong-un's leadership amid increasing pressure from the U.S.

Known as the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), the parliament is made up of hundreds of members and is the country's highest body of power, according to the constitution. In reality, experts say the SPA is actually just a rubber-stamp institution that confirms decisions on official appointments, the state budget, and legal amendments that are typically made by more powerful organisations such as the ruling Worker's Party of Korea.

Among potential new designations, senior party official Jo Yong-won could become the new minister of state security while a new spy chief may also be named, according to Yonhap News.

Key themes

"The fact that this meeting is timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Kim's accession to power may mean that it will seek to underline his achievements and supremacy," said Kevin Gray, senior lecturer at the University of Sussex.

The SPA is typically used as a means for Pyongyang to emphasize its dual pursuits of economic development and nuclear weapons, known as the byungjin policy. And given Washington's tough attitude toward the rogue nation's string of missile launches, this strategy has likely taken on new significance.

"The byungjin policy will be reemphasized as crucial to regime and North Korean survival, especially in the backdrop of the U.S aircraft carrier group in the region and President Trump's strike on Syria," said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor at International Christian University.

The isolated nation has made significant advancements in its nuclear technology over the years, particularly its ability to fire weapons from both land and sea.

North Korean students take part in a mass dance event in Pyongyang on April 9, 2017. The event was held to mark the election of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's election to the National Defense Committee in 1993. Mass dance events are frequently held on anniversaries and dates of importance on the North Korean calendar, and are a regular fixture on tourist itineraries.
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images
North Korean students take part in a mass dance event in Pyongyang on April 9, 2017. The event was held to mark the election of late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's election to the National Defense Committee in 1993. Mass dance events are frequently held on anniversaries and dates of importance on the North Korean calendar, and are a regular fixture on tourist itineraries.

There is a chance Kim will use the SPA to reiterate his plans to make North Korea a recognized nuclear state and continue to protect the country against foreign aggression, noted Scott Seaman, an Asia director at Eurasia Group.

But because the SPA isn't a forum for discussion or policy debates, it's difficult to say whether any new direction on the country's nuclear program will be revealed, Gray noted. "My guess is that it will probably not tell us anything we do not already know."

North Korea remains one of the world's most isolated countries and accurate information about domestic politics or the economy is notoriously hard to come by as local media remains under state control.

Another nuclear test?

On Tuesday, acting South Korean President Hwang Kyo-ahn warned that the parliamentary meeting could invite yet another North Korean nuclear test.

Two annual events around this time of year — joint military exercises between Seoul and Washington and the birthday of North Korea's founding father Kim Il-sung on April 15 — typically incite demonstrations of Pyongyang's military capabilities.

But no such provocations are expected on Tuesday.

"The conditions are not positive for missile testing while the U.S. aircraft carrier group is in the vicinity and with so many eyes focused on North Korea," said Nagy. "To engage in provocative behavior with so many moving parts would be unwise and I don't think they would miscalculate in that way."

Beijing and Seoul agreed to impose new sanctions on Pyongyang if it carried out further nuclear or long-range missile tests, Reuters reported on Monday.