NK-Cabinet reshuffle

SEOUL, April 2 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's parliament overhauled most industrial sector ministers while it tapped an economic expert as the country's new premier, state media outlets said Tuesday, an indication that the North may be seeking to revitalize it sluggish economy.

Korean Central Television and Radio Pyongyang said earlier in the day that the Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) sacked the vice prime minister 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 with no reason given for their dismissal.

"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 speculated that many of the new ministers worked with the 74-year-old 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.

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.

"The SPA made clear it will hold onto its nuclear arsenal yet it showed its interest toward economic growth at its gathering Monday," 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 issue 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). He, however, doubted that any economic reform drive will be effective in light of Pyongyang's failure to give up its WMD program.

Independent economists have said that the North doesn't have the means to pull off meaningful gains in the economic field without outside help, although such assistance is effectively impossible if it does not give up its nuclear weapons and its long-range rocket development projects.

The two broadcasters then said that to fill the vacancies in the Cabinet, Ri Mu-yong was named vice prime minister and head of the Ministry of Chemical Industry with Ri Chol-man made Minister of Agriculture and vice prime minister. 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.

Pak's predecessor Choe Yong-rim has been named honorary vice president of the SPA Presidium.

The North has been raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula by launching a long-range rocket and detonating its third nuclear device; yet, at the same time, it has been emphasizing the importance of economic growth and improving the livelihoods of the people.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which also covered the gathering of lawmakers, meanwhile, stopped disseminating all photos taken at the event, including those already sent out to clients. No explanation was given although it may be due to the photos not clearly showing Choe Ryong-hae, the director of the military's General Political Bureau, sitting right next to the North Korean leader. In the photos Kim seems to be sitting besides Jang Song-thaek, his uncle, who is widely considered to be the No. 2 man in the communist country.

Pyongyang observers said that while it is rare, the North's official news wire service, in the past withdrew whole stories that it had sent out.

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