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For the moment, North Korea turns its attention to economy

April 01, 2013|By Jung-yoon Choi

SEOUL -- After weeks of threats against the United States and South Korea, the leadership of North Korea turned its attention to its battered economy Monday, naming a 74-year-old economic expert as its new prime minister.

Pak Pong-Ju is viewed as a reformer, at least by North Korea's Stalinist standards, and experts in the South said his appointment shows a willingness by leader Kim Jong Un to pay some attention to domestic concerns -- although not at the expense of the country's nuclear weapons program.

During a rare plenary meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party, North Korea announced Sunday that the economy and nuclear development would be its twin areas of focus.

Kim described the nuclear weapons program as the "nation's life" and "treasure," adding that it "can never be abandoned."

He would not trade it, he said, for "billions of dollars."

Kim's regime has issued a series of extremely bellicose statements in recent weeks, threatening to attack South Korea and the United States -- although experts doubt that North Korean missiles are capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, much less delivering a nuclear payload.

In recent days, Pyongyang announced that it was ready to attack "all U.S. military bases in the Asia Pacific region," and that a state of war existed between the two Koreas.

So it was a shift of sorts when the government announced that the rubber-stamp parliament had approved Pak as premier, given his focus on economic development. He previously served as prime minister between 2003 and 2007, but was reportedly sacked for pushing programs that were seen as overly capitalist.

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

North Korea remains one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world, despite having the fourth-largest active military.

The Pyongyang regime has been widely condemned for its nuclear ambitions. After conducting a banned nuclear test in February, the communist state was slapped with strict United Nations sanctions. In response to that, the regime began ratcheting up its rhetoric.

In response, Washington has launched a show of force, flying nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers over South Korea last week for dummy bombing drills and then sending two F-22 Raptor fighter jets to join the drills.

North Korea has called the U.S.-South Korean drills "an unpardonable and heinous provocation and an open challenge."

New South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, who has expressed hopes of approaching North Korea with humanitarian aid as long as it agrees to abandon its nuclear ambitions, showed a stern side on Monday. She called for the South Korean military to respond powerfully and "without any political consideration" if the North makes any moves against the South.

At the South Korean Defense Ministry's annual policy briefing, Defense Minister Kim Gwan-Jin reported that the military is planning "an active deterrence," and said he will significantly improve South Korean military's capability.

Despite Pyongyang's threats Saturday to close the Kaesong industrial complex just north of the tense North-South border, South Korean workers were granted entry to the site on Monday morning.


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Choi is a special correspondent.

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