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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un's sister regains key post in leadership shake-up

Diplomats handling Russia and South Korea replace those negotiating with US

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong attend an inter-Korean meeting at the Panmunjom border village in 2018.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's younger sister returned to the country's top decision-making body in a leadership reshuffle that signaled a heightened emphasis on arms and less on U.S. diplomacy.

Kim Yo Jong, long part of her brother's inner circle, was elected Saturday as an alternate member of the central committee's political bureau. She was previously removed from the role in April last year following the nuclear summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi that February, which abruptly ended without a deal.

By regaining her spot on the Politburo, Kim Yo Jong appears to have further cemented her place as the de facto second in command. Last month, she twice issued statements under her name addressing relations with South Korea and the U.S. Kim Yo Jong has recently been seen with her brother at missile tests.

During a meeting of North Korea's parliament, career diplomats Ri Yong Ho and Ri Su Yong were removed from the State Affairs Commission, North Korea's top administrative body under the direct control of Kim Jong Un. Both were involved in negotiations with the U.S.

Taking their places are Ri Son Gwon and Kim Hyong Jun -- two figures with scant experience in U.S. diplomacy. Ri Son Gwon, a military official who oversaw policy toward South Korea, replaced Ri Yong Ho as foreign minister in January. Kim Hyong Jun once served as ambassador to Russia. It is not clear if either will be directly involved in negotiations with Washington.

Ri Pyong Chol, a former air force commander, was also installed on the State Affairs Commission. He headed up development of nuclear arms and intercontinental ballistic missiles. In 2016, state media publicized a photo of Ri happily embracing Kim Jong Un after a successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

North Korea, which has denied having any cases of the novel coronavirus within its borders, is showing signs of mounting concern about the spread of the virus. The epidemic was addressed during Saturday's Politburo meeting attended by Kim Jong Un.

According to the state-run Korean Central News Agency, a report presented at the meeting stated that "such reality shows that it has become impossible to remove the danger of the virus infection in a short time and such environment can become a condition creating some obstacles to our struggle and progress."

The Politburo apparently decided to continue to shut down the border with China. The parliament signed off on the allocation of funds to Pyongyang General Hospital, which is currently under construction. The body also approved a 7.4% increase in public health spending this year.

At the same time, the health minister said there has not been a single reported case of COVID-19 inside North Korea, according to an article Monday in the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun. The daily also published a photo showing hundreds of lawmakers attending the legislative session without wearing masks.

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