North Korea hints at reform with new PM

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In a file picture taken March 24, 2005 North Korean Premier Pak Pong-Ju (C-L) listens to an introduction as he visits the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall in Shanghai. North Korea on April 1, 2013 announced the appointment of Pak Pong-Ju, an economics expert, as new prime minister in a reshuffle endorsed by its rubber-stamp parliament. AFP FILE PHOTO

SEOUL – In the middle of an escalating military crisis on the Korean peninsula, North Korea’s appointment this week of an economic reformer as its new premier struck a discordant and possibly optimistic note.

The promotion of Pak Pong-Ju, 74, is notable not only for the fact that he has served as prime minister before, but also because he was sacked from the post in a backlash against the economic reforms he spearheaded.

His re-appointment is therefore being interpreted as a possible indication that North Korea’s new, young leader Kim Jong-Un is serious about turning around the North’s moribund economy.

When Kim’s father, Kim Jong-Il, died in December 2011 he left a country in dire economic straits — the result of a “military first” policy that fed an ambitious missile and nuclear program at the expense of a malnourished population.

Some observers initially saw a glimmer of reformist hope in his Swiss-educated heir who, soon after he took over, made several public statements on the need to improve living standards.

Instead, Kim Jong-Un has followed his father’s military lead, overseeing a long-range rocket launch and a third atomic test, and engaging in an intense bout of global brinkmanship that has included threatening the US with nuclear attack.

On Wednesday, the North showed the priority of military over economic strategy as it blocked access to South Koreans working in the Kaesong joint industrial complex — a key hard currency earner for Pyongyang.

But analysts note that along with all the bellicose rhetoric, Kim has continued to stress the need for economic development, albeit with little or no details about how it might best be achieved.

Kim presided over a meeting Sunday of the ruling party’s top leadership which formulated a “new strategic line” of simultaneous economic and nuclear weapons development.

State media touted this as an organic progression from Kim Jong-Il’s military-first strategy and clearly attributed it to the “steadfast will” of Kim Jong-Un.

Where, if anywhere, it will lead is still unclear, but Pak’s appointment could be viewed as an attempt to give the economic side of the dual policy some weight and credibility.

A senior South Korean government official on Tuesday cited the selection of a premier “with an economic background” as a sign of North Korea’s “willingness to engage” in genuine economic development.

“But whether it’s really a good sign is something we have yet to see,” the official said in a briefing for foreign reporters.

Jeung Young-Tae, an analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, said Pak’s promotion might only be symbolic, “but it’s a symbol that mirrors the need for economic construction” outlined at the party meeting.

“It suggests, albeit to a limited degree, that the North may be wanting to create a more efficient internal economic system,” Jeung said.

Pak, who previously served as prime minister from 2003-07, is best known as the architect of Chinese-style market reform measures issued a year before he assumed office.

The measures envisaged changes in food distribution and price-fixing mechanisms and more autonomy for state enterprises.

As premier, Pak was responsible for pushing these reforms, which prompted the emergence and spread of private markets.

But influential officials in the party and military viewed such reforms as a threat, and a backlash ensued which included a disastrous, inflationary currency reform intended to wipe out the profits of the new private traders.

Pak was suspended from duty in June 2006, sacked the following year and, according to some reports, was sent to manage a clothing factory outside Pyongyang.

His rehabilitation actually began under Kim Jong-Il, when in 2010 state media announced his appointment to the ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee.

Jeung suggested that Pak’s experience in the wilderness may well have curbed his reformist zeal.

“It certainly won’t be easy for him to advocate the same sort of dramatic economic reforms that may jeopardize his political standing again,” Jeung said.

Dramatic reform is precisely what North Korea needs to address the poverty that afflicts the vast majority of its population.

Last month, the UN resident coordinator in North Korea, Desiree Jongsma, said two-thirds of its 24 million population were chronically food insecure and nearly 28 percent of children under five were stunted from malnutrition.

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  • jinx

    What’s the motive of Agence France trying to highlight this irrelevant story amid the brewing war (at least word war for now) between NK and SK/US? Perhaps it’s trying to prevent such war from happening by sugarcoating fatboy Kim Jong Un’s image. Yes, we don’t want war to break out over there. But sometimes, we need it to exterminate a “termite” like Kim Jong Un before he can finally build a genuine nuclear bomb.

    • muddygoose

      It’s so easy to talk about war like it’s killing a termite, especially if you don’t live in Seoul. NoKor has threatened and can launch hundreds of rockets with conventional warheads at nearby Seoul. As you know, very few technologies can intercept rockets as soon as they are fired, especially when the targets are very close.

      • jinx

        South Korea in fact is taking a tougher stance now than they’ve shown before. Before, they played coy about NK’s threats to avoid war, only to be hit from behind: one of their towns south of the border was hit by NK’s artillery, and their warship was torpedoed, killing 46 sailors. You can’t let NK’s leaders stay their for long, it’s just like prolonging the agony.

      • Crazy_horse101010

        and north korea doesnt have that technology especially with nuke subs sitting at is back door.

  • Concur_Dissent

    I’m sure that the new economic minister will introduce reforms as long as they conform with the crazy KIM J UN

  • farmerpo

    I hope the kid will soon realize that he is not playing counter strike or league of legend. A spark of kwitis in real life will start a real conflagration that no nation can afford. A 90 minute barrage either way will set back both parties at least 10 years of economic cost and undetermined lives in collateral damage.

  • Commentator

    the dear leader of NK is just stupid. he cant win against US. he should stop acting like a dick and start real change for the good of NK people.

    look at SK, they are richer than PH now even though they envied PH back then.

    heh. philippines…

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