North Korea's parliament meets, with Kim Jong Un at center

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korea's parliament convened on Tuesday, with the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, taking the center seat.

The parliament meeting comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula, with the United States and South Korea conducting their biggest-ever military exercises and the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier heading to the area in a show of American strength. North Korea, for its part, has recently test-launched a long-range ballistic missile, and experts say it could be preparing for its sixth nuclear test.

The Supreme People's Assembly, nominally the highest organ of government, usually meets once or twice a year. It consists of approximately 600 deputies from around the country who usually confirm new domestic policies, changes to the constitution, budget decisions, laws and official appointments.

Initial reports from state media said the meeting went through various domestic issues, with North Korean Premier Pak Pong Ju making a speech about the latest five-year economic plan, which was announced last year. Another closely watched category on the official agenda was organizational issues, which can mean new appointments of officials to senior positions.

According to the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency, Pak told deputies to the assembly that the country has "over-fulfilled" its goals on virtually all fronts of the economy and marked successes in everything from increased coal production to the development of a "new type tractor, truck and various high-performance farm implements."

Pak said that the Cabinet this year is prioritizing improving the people's standard of living and noted, among other things, the need to solve the "acute shortage of electricity."

Foreign media are not allowed to attend the meetings.

Like other attendees, Kim Jong Un was shown on the North Korean news late Tuesday holding up his assembly membership card to vote on state business.

This year's meeting kicks off what are expected to be major celebrations, including a large-scale military parade and fireworks, to mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's first leader and "eternal president," and Kim Jong Un's late grandfather.

Though the details of the April 15 anniversary — known as the "Day of the Sun" — have not been officially confirmed, Pyongyang residents have been out every day diligently practicing in the city's squares and parks for their role in the expected mass event.

Pyongyang is always extremely sensitive to the annual U.S.-South Korea war games, which it sees as an invasion rehearsal, and has significantly turned up the volume of its rhetoric that war could be on the horizon if it sees any signs of aggression from south of the Demilitarized Zone.

In the capital, however, there has been little sense of urgency other than that required to get ready for the big events later this week.

Though the North Korean parliament is often dismissed as rubberstamp because it tends to approve, rather than formulate, policies and laws, its role is a bit more complex than the facade and the spectacle presented to the nation by state-run media.

For one thing, the regularity of its meetings is, in itself, a sign of stability.

"The SPA gatherings completely undercut any analysis or prognostications that the country is going to collapse; if they failed to convene an SPA session, that would be an indication that there is a fundamental problem among DPRK elites," said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch website. North Korea's formal name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"If there was an existential problem with the (ruling) Workers' Party of Korea and the political culture, then they wouldn't be convening so many people at one time in Pyongyang," Madden said.

He said the parliament's members are a cross-section of the country's population — and not necessarily a collection of the elites, adding that assembly deputies get an administrative assistant, or "technical secretary," and receive a stipend for their work.

They are generally brought into the capital for a week of tours and visits to politically important sites that pay homage to the Kim family.

Back home, Madden added, being an assembly member also has its own perks and "bragging rights."