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Reality check? North Korean parliamentary session shifts tone

After weeks of belligerent talk, North Korea espoused a 'new strategic line,' saying its struggling economy as well as its military strength is a top priority.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (l.) speaks during a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang March 31 in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency on April 1.

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North Korea began its annual spring parliamentary session on Monday amid ongoing tensions in the region between Pyongyang, Seoul, and Washington. But in a sign that North Korea might be taking a more realistic approach than its belligerence would suggest, the ruling party declared that a stronger economy remained a top goal of the country, along with expanding its nuclear arsenal.

In recent weeks, North Korea has kept up a steady stream of threats against the United States and South Korea, including plans to "cut off" hot lines to the South and to launch military strikes against the US mainland. Pyongyang has also proclaimed that it would never yield its nuclear weapons under any circumstances. But the parliamentary focus on economic reform suggests that the North may not be as obsessed with its own paranoia as its propaganda suggests.

The Associated Press writes that "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."

As further evidence to that end, the North has not yet followed through on its threat to close the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a site inside North Korea where South Korean companies and managers oversee manufacturing performed by North Korean workers.  South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reports that the site remained open on Monday, despite Pyongyang's threat on Saturday that it "will be mercilessly shut down" unless South Korea stops "damaging our dignity."

Chosun Ilbo notes that while a North Korean spokesman said shuttering the complex would most injure South Korean businesses, in fact the complex is a critical lifeline for the North. 

[If the complex were closed,] the regime would have to relinquish some $87 million a year it makes from the wages of 54,000 North Korean workers there. A worker makes an average of $134 a month, but most of it goes straight into the regime's coffers.

And the families of North Korean workers as well as some 250,000-300,000 residents in Kaesong and surrounding areas would be heavily affected. "If the water that is pumped into the city via the industrial complex is shut off, the locals will have to start digging wells," said a government official here.

The North Korean moves – or lack thereof – come as both the US and South Korea have appeared to be upping their shows of strength in the region. 

DailyNK reports that South Korean President Park Geun-hye Monday told senior officials that "If any provocations happen to our people and our country, it should  respond powerfully in the early stage without any political consideration."

"As commander in chief of the armed forces, I will trust the military's judgment on abrupt and surprise provocations by North Korea, as it is the one that directly faces off against them," she added. "Please carry out your duty of guarding the safety of the people without the slightest distraction."

Reuters also notes that the South has changed its military policies to allow a quicker and more retributive response to North Korean aggression:

The South has changed its rules of engagement to allow local units to respond immediately to attacks, rather than waiting for permission from Seoul.

Stung by criticism that its response to the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010 was tardy and weak, Seoul has also threatened to target North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and to destroy statues of the ruling Kim dynasty in the event of any new attack, a plan that has outraged Pyongyang.

And the US sent a squadron of F-22 fighters to the region in the latest apparent display of aerial military technology amid ongoing Seoul-Washington war games in the region – war games that have provoked strong protests from the North. Time writes that "It’s almost as if the U.S. Air Force has moved a branch of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum to South Korea," as in recent weeks the US Air Force has flown "Eisenhower-era B-52s," "Reagan-era B-2s" and "George W. Bush-era F-22s" over the Korean Peninsula.

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