TOKYO — North Korea's parliament was scheduled to convene on Wednesday amid a series of diplomatic moves by leader Kim Jong Un that could have a major impact on the direction the country takes in the months and possibly years ahead.
Meetings of the full Supreme People's Assembly are usually brief, once-a-year affairs intended to approve budgets, formalize personnel changes and rubber-stamp Kim's policy priorities.
But this year's session was being watched more closely because it was to begin just two weeks before Kim is to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and as Pyongyang and Washington are working out the details of a summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in late May or early June.
Kim just completed his first summit, with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last month. His foreign minister is currently in Moscow, reportedly exploring the possibility of a summit with President Vladimir Putin.
Kim's seemingly sudden switch from launching missiles at a record pace last year to exploring dialogue has generally been welcomed. But questions remain over how willing Kim might be to make serious compromises on his nuclear weapons program in return for security guarantees and the lifting of economic sanctions that are taking a big bite out of his country's economy.
Pyongyang has been careful not to reveal its hand.
The first significant news of the overtures in its official media came this week, when they reported that Kim laid out his plans for dialogue with South Korea and the United States at a pre-assembly gathering of top ruling party officials on Monday. But even those reports were cautious: Trump wasn't mentioned by name and Kim was said to have talked about the "prospect" of dialogue with Washington.
It was not immediately clear what was on the agenda for the assembly or how much of it would be made public.
State media, which only announced the date of the assembly session last month, do not generally report about the meetings until they are over. Foreign media in Pyongyang — including The Associated Press — were not allowed to cover the session independently.
North Korea's supreme assembly is a far cry from the Western democratic idea of what a parliament should be.
The assembly, which has had 686 members since the most recent elections in 2014, generally holds one and sometimes two sessions each year.
It's headed by Kim Yong Nam, the North's 90-year-old senior statesman who accompanied Kim's sister to South Korea in February to attend the opening of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. He has been the head of the assembly since 1998, and although he seems to be in good health, speculation that he may retire has been circulating for years.
The assembly is technically the highest organ of state power under the North's constitution. In practice, it serves more to formalize whatever decisions and policies that are put before it. But it is an important means of keeping the deputies updated and informed of national priorities so that they can in turn pass that information on to their districts.
When the assembly is in session, it is common to see long caravans of buses filled with deputies being taken around the capital for tours of museums and visits to historical sites — probably a rare experience for some of the representatives of the more remote or rural areas.
State media reported Tuesday that this year's deputies toured a revolutionary history museum, a cemetery for "revolutionary martyrs" and a teachers' university.