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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un tightens grip as new leadership emerges in North Korea

Assembly reshuffle indicates desire to return to denuclearization talks with US

Commuters at the Seoul Railway Station watch a TV showing a file image of Kim Jong Un as newscasters report on North Korea's latest leadership reshuffle.   © AP

SEOUL -- Kim Jong Un tightened his grip on North Korea's government with a reshuffle of the nation's assembly and at the same time signaled to the U.S. that he seeks to resume denuclearization talks.

The Korea Central News Agency on Friday reported that the Supreme People's Assembly has reelected Kim as chairman of the State Affairs Commission, the country's top governing institution.

"The election of the supreme leader as chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the DPRK is the great political event of crucial historical significance in further consolidating and developing the DPRK into Kim Il Sung's and Kim Jong Il's state forever," the state mouthpiece reported, using an acronym for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Kim Il Sung is the founder of the country, and Kim Jong Il is his son and father of Kim Jong Un.

Choe Ryong Hae, 69, was elected as president of the Presidium of the assembly, replacing Kim Yong Nam, 91, who had been in the position, the symbolic head of state, for more than two decades.

Choe becomes the first vice chairman of the commission, consolidating his status as No. 2 to Kim Jong Un.

North Korea's Choe Ryong Hae in 2014.   © AP

The moves came hours before U.S. President Donald Trump met with his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, in Washington to discuss how to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Moon told Trump that he plans to push for another inter-Korean summit soon to keep the dialogue going, South Korea's Blue House said.

Experts say Trump and Kim want to maintain the momentum they have built, although neither is willing to soften his stance anytime soon. At the end of February, when he met Kim in Hanoi, Vietnam, Trump demanded that Kim take some big steps toward giving up his nuclear program. Kim insisted on a piecemeal approach in which economic sanctions against North Korea would be lifted along the way.

"We remain of the view that both Kim and Trump want the engagement process to continue, despite their failure to agree on even the basic outline of a deal," said Scott Seaman, a director at Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based think tank. "The most significant aspect of their remarks this week was arguably the fact that both leaders demonstrated no desire to increase tensions or make dialogue more difficult."

In the North Korean assembly, officials who have negotiated with the U.S. have kept their positions or were promoted, a sign that Pyongyang is willing to engage with Washington. Ri Su Yong, Kim Yong Chol and Ri Yong Ho were reelected as members of the commission, while Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui joined the 14-member organization for the first time.

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