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N. Korean ex-PM Pak Pong-ju appears to be back in power

All Headlines 14:28 August 21, 2010

SEOUL, Aug. 21 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's former Premier Pak Pong-ju appears to have returned to power with the Workers' Party, more than three years after he was ousted due to his economic reform drive, according to a Pyongyang broadcast report on Saturday.

The North's Korean Central Broadcasting Station introduced Pak as the "first deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea," reporting on the 50th foundation ceremony of Pyongyang's flagship Okryu Restaurant held Friday with a number of senior officials and workers.

There is no other known figure with the same name among the North Korean power-holding elite.

Pak, a long-time industry technocrat and pragmatist, was named premier of the North's Cabinet in September 2003. He spearheaded the North's so-called July 1st Economic Measure reform drive toward market economy, which aimed to give more autonomy to state firms and gradually reduce state rationing of food and daily necessities.

But his strong initiative triggered a backlash from the party and the military that resulted in his dismissal. Pak was suspended from duty in June 2006 on charges of fund apprehension and was fired in April the following year. Kim Yong-il, then land and marine transport minister, replaced him.

Pak is believed to have been demoted to a managerial post at a clothing factory outside Pyongyang.

Cho Myung-chul, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy who has defected from North Korea, viewed Pak's reinstatement as a signal of a shifting North Korean economic policy toward pragmatism, following its failed currency reform last year.

"Pak is an emblematic figure of the July 1st Economic Measure that promoted pragmatism. His reinstatement could be connected with an economic policy shift back to pragmatism after the anti-market currency reform failed."

In a bid to curb the burgeoning merchant class and strengthen its socialist system, North Korea implemented a surprise currency reform in November, knocking two zeros off its denominations. But the move backfired, worsening food shortages and triggering social unrest.

Apparently taking responsibility for the botched reform, Premier Kim Yong-il was replaced by Choe Yong-rim in June.

The broadcast report on Saturday did not specify which department of the Workers' Party Pak joined, but it is likely that he was posted to the light industry department, considering the ceremony involving a restaurant and the fact that he was the department's first deputy director in 1993.

Pak is believed to be a close confidante to Jang Song-thaek, vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and brother-in-law of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Jang is seen as the central figure in grooming Kim's third and youngest son, Jong-un, as the next leader.

Japan's Mainichi Shimbun reported on Aug. 15, quoting multiple sources, that Pak and about 20 other figures close to Jang had been reinstated within the past two years. The report also said Pak has risen to the second highest spot in the party's light industry department, which is headed by Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Jong-il's sister and Jang's wife.


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