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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 256 (April 4, 2013)

All Headlines 10:39 April 04, 2013

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Korea Conducts Large-scale Cabinet Reshuffle to Revive Ailing Economy

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korea has conducted a large-scale reshuffle of its party and the Cabinet, tapped an economy expert as the country's new premier and replaced most industrial sector ministers -- an indication that the country will be seeking to revitalize its sluggish economy.

The Supreme People's Assembly (SPA), the North's rubber-stamp legislature, appointed Pak Pong-ju, a long-time industry technocrat who led the country's economic reform a decade ago, to the post of the premier on April 1, according to the North's state media.

The (North) Korean Central Television Broadcasting Station and Radio Pyongyang said on April 2 that the SPA sacked vice premier Ri Seung-ho and other ministers in charge of agriculture, natural resources development, city management, land and environmental preservation and the chemical and crude oil industries. Heads of the public health and education ministries were also replaced.

The broadcasters said that Ri Mu-yong was named vice premier and head of the Ministry of Chemical Industry, while Ri Chol-man was made vice premier and minister of Agriculture. Kang Yong-su and Pae Hak were each named ministers of City Management and Crude Oil Industry.

The media outlets added that new officials such as Ri Hyuk, Ri Chun-sam, Kim Kyung-jun and Tae Hyung-chol were appointed to lead the ministries of fisheries, national resources development, environment preservation and education. The education minister jointly holds the title of president of Kim Il-sung University, the North's most prestigious school.

The appointment of the 74-year-old Pak, who led the country's economic reform a decade ago, as premier again shows the strong intention of the North's leadership to revive the economy.

"Pak's appointment to the premiership indicates how much North Korean leader Kim Jong-un stresses the importance of stimulating the country's economy," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korean studies professor at Seoul's Dongkuk University.

Other observers in Seoul echoed this view and claimed changing most industrial sector ministers in the North's Cabinet may be connected to the SPA's decision to name Pak as premier for the second time and allow him to revive the economy by appointing officials he has worked with in the past.

Pak is a long-time industry technocrat and economic expert who led the chemical industry ministry before serving as the country's premier from 2003-2007. He visited Seoul in 2002 as a member of a North Korean economic delegation, and is cited for spearheading the "July 1 Decree" in the same year that calls for wage setting reforms and more freedom for the country's businesses.

As the North's premier, Pak visited China in 2005 where he met with Hu Jintao, China's then president, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and had a first-hand look at the industrial complex in Pudong, Shanghai.

Though his strong initiative triggered a backlash from the party and the military, which resulted in his dismissal, Pak returned to power with the Workers' Party in 2010 and was posted to the light industry department.

Taking his track record into consideration, the new premier is expected to put greater emphasis on the light and agricultural sectors as part of efforts to boost its moribund economy, experts said.

"There have been reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un called for the creation of a task force last year to revamp the economy, and those that were newly named as ministers took part in that policy development process," said Cho Bong-hyun, an analyst at the IBK Economic Research Institute.

He noted that many of the new ministers worked with Pak Pong-ju, who was confirmed as prime minister by the SPA, and is also a member of the political bureau, the country's top decision-making body.

Ri Mu-yong, who was named vice prime minister and head of the Ministry of Chemical Industry, worked with Pak as an engineer when Pak was serving as chief secretary of the party committee of the Namhung Youth Chemical Complex. Ri was named the minister of chemical industry in 2003 to succeed Pak who became the premier of the Cabinet. Ri, who has been a close associate of Pak for the past 30 years, is expected to take an important role in the Cabinet led by Pak, observers say.

It was discovered that Ri Chol-man, new vice prime minister and minister of Agriculture, and Kang Yong-su and Pae Hak -- each named ministers of city management and the crude oil industry - also have close relations with Pak from 10 years ago.

Pak was named a standing member of the political bureau during a plenary meeting of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) on March 31 while Defense Minister Kim Kyok-sik and Choi Bu-il, minister of people's security, were elected as members of the WPK National Defense Commission at the seventh conference of the SPA held at the Mansudae Assembly Hall on April 1.

During the parliamentary meeting, the North's legislators "expressed their determination to re-energize the overall economy of the country, step up the grand advance for improving the standard of people's living," the (North) Korean Central news Agency (KCNA) said in its English dispatch.

The annual spring session, which is usually held to approve personnel changes and budget plans, comes amid heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula over the country's near-daily threats of war. The tensions drastically escalated following the North's Feb. 12 nuclear test -- which earned the country fresh U.N. sanctions -- and joint annual U.S.-South Korea military drills in March.

During the meeting, the socialist country also adopted a law on "consolidating the position of a nuclear weapons state for self-defense," declaring itself as "a full-fledged" nuclear power, according to the KCNA report.

Stressing that the move aims to cope with "the ever-escalating hostile policy of the U.S. and nuclear threats," the North said it can take practical steps to bolster its nuclear power "both in quality and quantity" and can attack enemies "until the world is denuclearized."

The socialist country also passed a law on space development, and decided to make the "State Space Development Bureau," which will be in charge of supervising its space development program so as to develop the country into "a world-class space power by exercising its legitimate right to space development for peaceful purposes," the KCNA said.

Pyongyang has long claimed its "legitimate right to use space for peaceful purposes and to develop the country's science, technology and economy" for its launch of long-range rockets, with the latest launch occurring last December.

"The SPA made clear it will hold onto its nuclear arsenal, yet it showed its interest toward economic growth at its gathering," a unification ministry official said.

The official, who declined to be identified, added that naming Pak and changing ministers could be viewed as a move by Pyongyang to overcome the current impasse on its nuclear issues and strained relations with the rest of the world, by giving off signals that it wants to focus more on the economy than weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, he doubted that any economic reform drive will be effective in light of Pyongyang's failure to give up its WMD program.

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