Kim tightens leadership over North Korea in major government reshuffle

Fortunately, he is not yet signalling a retreat from nuke dimplomacy

Photo: EPA North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has further cemented his grip on power, in a big reshuffle of the country's leadership this week. Kim, however, didn't signal a retreat, either from negotiations with the US or a self-imposed moratorium on testing of missiles and nuclear bombs, something Pyongyang said last month he had been considering. Instead, Kim's remarks pointed to economic belt-tightening in an attempt to ride out economic sanctions - and perhaps the Trump administration, too - while hanging on to his country's nuclear arsenal.

At a session in Pyongyang of the newly elected parliament - the result of voting last month in which all candidates ran unopposed - Kim was re-elected as Chairman of the State Affairs Commission. That means he retains, as expected, his posts as leader of the ruling party, state and military. He added an extra honorary title though, "Supreme Representative of all the Korean People," apparently for use in ceremonial and diplomatic occasions. Long-serving officials such as 91-year-old Kim Jong Nam, the titular head of state, and Premier Pak Pong Ju, 80, were either retired or promoted to symbolic posts and replaced by younger officials.

What is more important, however, is Kim's main message that came on Wednesday, when he told ruling Workers' Party officials to make the country's economy self-sufficient, "so as to deal a telling blow to the hostile forces who go with bloodshot eyes, miscalculating that sanctions can bring (North Korea) to its knees."

The remarks, which were quoted by the Korean Central News Agency, were clearly aimed at Washington, and they come weeks after a second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi that ended abruptly with no progress toward the US goal of ending North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Kim's expectations of tough times ahead seemed to also anticipate President Trump's comments to visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday that he was unwilling to ease sanctions on the North, or make big concessions in nuclear negotiations.

Moon's trip to Washington was seen in Seoul as a crucial test of his role as mediator between North Korea and the US. South Korea's government had voiced hopes for a "good-enough deal," and an "early harvest." In other words, a smaller, interim deal to get the denuclearisation ball rolling. But Trump mostly rebuffed Moon, saying "at this moment, we're talking about the big deal. The big deal is we have to get rid of the nuclear weapons." Thus, Seoul announced Moon's next step will be to seek a fourth summit with Kim Jong-un to try to broker a deal.

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