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N. Korea replaces head of inter-Korean industrial complex: sources

All Headlines 11:58 September 01, 2011

SEOUL, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has replaced the chief of an inter-Korean industrial park in what could be another move to prepare for the Pyongyang regime's hereditary power transfer, sources and experts said Thursday.

Ri Kum-chol, 49, was named to the post in March to replace Kim Il-gun, who had served in the position since late 2008, according to multiple sources familiar with North Korean affairs.

The industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong was an achievement of the first-ever inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang in 2000. More than 47,000 North Koreans work at about 120 South Korean firms operating there to produce clothes, utensils, watches and other goods.

In 1989, Ri, then the leader of his university's student committee, served as a guide for Lim Su-gyeong, a South Korean pro-reunification student activist, during the latter's illegal trip to Pyongyang. After spending nearly 50 days in the communist nation, Lim returned across the inter-Korean land border and later served a term in prison for traveling to North Korea without government approval.

In 2003, Ri attended Red Cross talks between the two Koreas as the North's chief delegate, but his activities since then have been rare. North Korea's official media referred to him by various titles between 2008 and 2010, such as the secretary of the central committee for a youth alliance on "Kim Il-sung socialism," but experts said those reports may have been about his namesake.

Chief of the Kaesong complex "is a high-ranking post equivalent to a (South Korean) vice minister," said a North Korea expert, who declined to be identified. "If Ri is who we think he is, then it appears that the (appointment) is related to the ongoing generational shift ahead of the power transfer to Kim Jong-un."

Kim Jong-un, the heir-apparent to current leader Kim Jong-il, is believed to be in his late 20s. Ri is six years younger than his predecessor, suggesting that Pyongyang intends to build a younger support base around the future leader.

One source, who travels regularly to the Kaesong factory park, said he had heard rumors from North Koreans about Ri's appointment, but none of them had seen him yet.

A government official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, added that the appointment is difficult to confirm as the head of the complex has not been spotted in the industrial zone since March, and no official documents have been exchanged between his office and South Korea.

hague@yna.co.kr
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