PYONGYANG, North Korea – Hours after a failed rocket launch criticized abroad as a covert test of missile technology, North Korea’s new leader underlined the country’s “military first” policy with a budget that allocates a sizable chunk of funding to defence spending.
North Korea’s legislature also rubber-stamped Kim Jong Un’s leadership of the country and promoted a host of relatively younger military officials to the powerful National Defence Commission, state-run media reported Saturday, in a strong indication that will have an overarching role in policy, just as it did under his father, late leader Kim Jong Il.
Still, Premier Choe Yong Rim told legislators the nation’s top priority is to build up the economy and improve the people’s standard of living, according to the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly convened Friday for a special one-day session to ratify appointments and promotions, discuss this year’s budget and to make constitutional amendments to formalize Kim Jong Un’s leadership of the country.
Hours earlier, in a precursor to the gathering, North Korea defied the U.S. and others by firing a long-range rocket that space officials said was mounted with an observational satellite despite warnings against pushing ahead with the provocative launch.
In a rare admission, North Korea announced on state TV that the bid was a failure, with the satellite failing to reach orbit.
International condemnation was swift, including the suspension of U.S. food aid, and there are concerns that the North’s next move could be even more provocative: a nuclear test.
The U.N. Security Council denounced the launch as a violation of resolutions that prohibit North Korea from developing its nuclear and missile programs. The council imposed sanctions on North Korea after its first nuclear test in 2006 and stepped up sanctions after its second in 2009.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the launch “deplorable” and urged North Korea “not to undertake any further provocative actions that will heighten tension in the region,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
President Barack Obama said North Korea’s failed rocket launch shows the country is wasting money on rockets that “don’t work” while its people go hungry. He said the U.S. will work with other nations to “further isolate” North Korea.
North Korea spent an estimated $850 million to build the rocket and a new west coast launch pad, South Korea’s Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik said at a parliamentary hearing Friday. The World Food Program says at least 6 million North Koreans â€” a quarter of the population â€” need outside food aid to supplement diminishing state-supplied rations.
North Korea had trumpeted the launch of its Kwangmyongsong, or Bright Shining Star, satellite as a civilian scientific achievement and a gift for late North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, in the run-up to celebrations marking his 100th birthday Sunday.
Space official Ryu Kum Chol told reporters earlier in the week that the satellite was designed to send back data about weather conditions and conduct landscape surveys to help pinpoint natural resources.
However, experts say the Unha-3 carrier is the same type of prohibited rocket that would be used to strike the U.S. and other targets with a long-range missile.
On Saturday, South Korea’s Navy was examining pieces of rocket debris, South Korean broadcaster SBS reported. The parts could explain what went wrong and provide details about North Korea’s rocket technology.
In Pyongyang, meanwhile, Kim Jong Un was made first secretary of the National Defence Commission, a post formally making him the nation’s leader. Joining him on the commission were three new, relatively younger, officials in the first major reshuffle of the body since Kim, who is believed to be in his late 20s, took power four months ago following his father’s death.
The legislature also approved setting aside 15.8 per cent of the budget for defence â€” roughly the same amount as the past two years, confirmation that resources will continue to be pumped into the military under Kim Jong Un.
However, the premier said the focus will rest on improving the economy.
“This year the Cabinet will concentrate all efforts on light industry and agriculture and lay a solid foundation for building an economic power,” Choe told legislators, according to KCNA.
The appointments follow key changes in the makeup of the leadership of the ruling Workers’ Party on Wednesday.
On Saturday, tens of thousands â€” soldiers, party officials and ordinary citizens being honoured for doing exceptional work this year â€” gathered at Kim Il Sung Stadium for a rally in honour of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday.
They closed by chanting “Kim Jong Un, defend him to the death,” as Kim watched and waved from a viewing platform.
At Kim Il Sung Square, thousands waving fake red and pink bouquets practiced their steps for a parade expected Sunday while scores of residents, many of the women in brightly hued traditional Korean dresses, bowed and left flowers at the foot of two new statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il .
Associated Press writer Sam Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Robert Burns, Matthew Pennington and Wendy Benjaminson in Washington; and Edith Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.