Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

North Korea reinstates old premier

South Korean troops guard the border with the North (AP)

North Korea's parliament has appointed a new premier seen by outside experts as an economic reformer who was previously sacked from the post after proposing Western-style capitalist reforms.

The re-emergence of Pak Pong Ju as premier at an annual spring parliamentary session is seen by analysts as a signal that leader Kim Jong Un is moving to back up recent statements vowing to focus on strengthened economic development. The UN says two-thirds of the country's 24 million people face regular food shortages.

Mr Pak served as the North's premier in 2003-2007. He was sacked initially because of a proposal for an incentive-based hourly, rather than monthly, wage system deemed too similar to capitalism. Pak replaces Choe Yong Rim, who is 82.

"Pak Pong Ju is the face of economic reform, such as it exists - reform with North Korean characteristics as they say," said John Delury, a professor and North Korea analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University.

Any economic changes will not be radical, Professor Delury said, and, for the time being, mostly aspirational. One possible change could entail a shift of part of the country's massive military spending into the economy as a whole.

Mr Pak is known for spearheading reforms in 2002, when the government began allowing some markets, although it later backtracked, said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea analyst at Seoul's Dongguk University. His appointment could be a message to the outside world that North Korea wants to calm tension and focus more on economic revitalisation.

Pyongyang has reacted with anger to the US-South Korean military drills and to a new round of sanctions that followed its February 12 underground nuclear test, the country's third. Analysts see a full-scale North Korean attack as unlikely and say the threats are more likely efforts to provoke softer policies toward Pyongyang from a new government in Seoul, to win diplomatic talks with Washington and to solidify the young North Korean leader's military credentials at home.

Despite the rising hostility, recent rhetoric has focused on efforts to turn around a moribund economy and nuclear development.

Kim and top party officials adopted a declaration calling nuclear weapons "the nation's life" and an important component of its defence, an asset that would not be traded even for "billions of dollars."

While analysts call North Korea's threats largely brinkmanship, there is some fear that a localized skirmish might escalate. Seoul has vowed to respond harshly should North Korea provoke its military. Naval skirmishes in disputed Yellow Sea waters off the Korean coast have led to bloody battles several times over the years. Attacks blamed on Pyongyang in 2010 killed 50 South Koreans.

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