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Seoul, South Korea | North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has carried out a major reshuffle of his State Affairs Commission, official media reported Monday, replacing more than a third of its members.
Kim has established an iron grip on the levers of authority in his nuclear-armed country since inheriting power in his late 20s in 2011.
He is chairman of the SAC -- the North's highest decision-making body -- and five of its 13 other members were replaced at a meeting of the country's rubber-stamp Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) parliament on Sunday, the state KCNA news agency reported.
"This is a rather large scale of SAC membership shuffle," said former US government North Korea analyst Rachel Lee.
Pictures carried by the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper showed hundreds of lawmakers sitting in close proximity to each other without wearing protective masks.
A cabinet report reiterated the North's insistence that "not a single case" of the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the world since emerging in neighbouring China has been reported in the country.
Pyongyang put thousands of its own people and hundreds of foreigners -- including diplomats -- into isolation and mounted disinfection drives as it sought to prevent an outbreak, which experts say could be devastating given its weak health sector and widespread malnutrition.
"State emergency anti-epidemic campaign will continue to be intensified to prevent the spread of COVID-19," the cabinet report said.
There was no mention on KCNA of Kim presiding over the meeting himself, and he did not appear in photos of it.
"The fact that North Korea went ahead with the SPA suggests the country's confidence in managing the coronavirus situation," Lee told AFP.
"The fact that the attendees were not wearing masks only reconfirms that."
- 'Serious mistakes' -
The new SAC members include Ri Son Gwon, a former senior army officer named as foreign minister earlier this year, while his predecessor, career diplomat Ri Yong Ho, was removed.
Another former foreign minister, Ri Su Yong, was also taken off the committee.
Under Kim the North has made rapid progress on its nuclear arsenal, launching missiles capable of reaching the whole of the US mainland, and has been subject to increasingly stringent UN Security Council sanctions as a result.
Talks with the US have been largely deadlocked since the collapse of the Hanoi summit last year over sanctions relief and what the North would be willing to give up in exchange.
A budgetary report submitted to the SPA said 15.9 percent of state spending this year would be devoted to defence, KCNA said, a marginal increase on 2019.
The cabinet report acknowledged that "serious mistakes" were found in its work last year.
"They taught a serious lesson that if the officials in charge of providing economic guidance fail to fulfil their duty," the authorities' economic goals will not be achieved, it said.
North Korea "apparently wants to show its institutions are working and national safety is under control, while trying to lower public expectations about the economy by blaming the ongoing global pandemic," Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, told AFP.