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    N Korea at crossroads

    Kim's absence from North Korean parliament spurs speculation

    This marks the first in country's history, but leader's position is unchallenged

    SEOUL/WASHINGTON -- Leader Kim Jong Un will not serve in North Korea's newly elected legislative body, an unprecedented turn of events that set off speculation about his intentions for a new leadership structure, though experts agree his grip on power remains firm.

    Kim was not among the 687 members of the new Supreme People's Assembly announced Tuesday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. Kim, who was elected to the legislature both in 2012 and 2014, apparently chose not to sit on the rubber-stamp body this time.

    This marks the first time in North Korea's history that its leader has not been a member of the assembly, according to South Korea's Ministry of Unification. "We will need to keep an eye on the specific reasons behind this," a ministry source said.

    North Korean media have not provided a reason for Kim's absence, but some experts think he is planning to overhaul the legislature. He could create new posts and reform the framework at the parliamentary session in April.

    Even if Kim is not part of the assembly, it will not affect his position as supreme leader, a North Korean diplomatic defector said. It remains unclear if or how the change will affect the North's dealings with the U.S.

    Despite intelligence reports that North Korea is probably preparing another missile launch, Pyongyang is publicly sticking to its commitment to full denuclearization.

    It is North Korea's "unwavering stance" to move toward permanent and secure peace on the Korean Peninsula and "complete denuclearization," the government propaganda site Uriminzokkiri said Tuesday.

    Touching on Kim's second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump at the end of February, the site said the leaders will continue a "productive dialogue" to resolve issues raised in Hanoi.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. appears to be retreating to a hard-line approach. "We are not going to do denuclearization incrementally," special envoy Stephen Biegun said Monday, stressing that Trump and the rest of his administration are united on this point.

    The comment, made at the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, signals a shift from the more conciliatory approach by Washington in past months. The U.S. communicated that "we are prepared to pursue -- simultaneously and in parallel -- all of the commitments our two leaders made in their joint statement at Singapore last summer," Biegun had said at the end of January.

    Biegun did raise the liaison office as a possibility on Monday as a way to build trust. But the administration as a whole is wary of offering carrots to Pyongyang, including allowing its joint economic projects with South Korea, like the Mount Kumgang resort and the Kaesong industrial complex.

    The State Department is not currently considering exempting these projects from U.N. sanctions, a senior official said Thursday.

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