N. Korea taps reformist premier in midst of escalating tensions
SEOUL, South Korea
North Korea’s parliament approved the appointment of a new premier seen by outside experts as an economic reformer one day after top party officials adopted a declaration making nuclear arms and a stronger economy the nation’s top priorities.
The U.S., meanwhile, made its latest conspicuous display of firepower, announcing it had sent F-22 stealth fighter jets to participate in annual U.S.-South Korean war games that Pyongyang calls preparation for an invasion. The new South Korean president, who has a policy meant to re-engage Pyongyang with talks and aid, told her top military leaders Monday to set aside political considerations and respond strongly should North Korea attack.
The re-emergence of Pak Pong Ju as premier at an annual spring parliamentary session is seen by analysts as a clear signal that leader Kim Jong Un is moving to back up recent vows to focus on strengthened economic development. The U.N. says two-thirds of the country’s 24 million people face regular food shortages.
Pak was the North’s premier from 2003 to 2007, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry. He was sacked initially because of a proposal for an incentive-based hourly, rather than monthly, wage system deemed too similar to U.S.-style capitalism, Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper reported in 2007. 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 won’t be radical, Delury said, and, for the time being, they’re mostly aspirational. One possible change could entail a shift of part of the country’s massive military spending into the economy as a whole, he said.
Pak is widely 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 revitalization, Koh said.
Pyongyang has reacted with anger to the U.S.-South Korean military drills and to a new round of U.N. and U.S. sanctions that followed its Feb. 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.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday the U.S. has not detected any military mobilization or repositioning of forces from Pyongyang to back up the threats.