Premier Pak Pong-ju: The Helmsman Looks North

By | May 12, 2013 | No Comments

Pak Pong-ju meets Hu Jintao in 2005; photo via

Pak Pong-ju meets Hu Jintao in 2005 | photo via

Amid the thunderous grand-guignol of the North Korean propaganda offensive in late March, a couple of things gave engagement advocates cause for hope. One was that senior statesman Pak Pong-ju found himself heaved out of relative obscurity and appointed Cabinet Premier. Yonsei University professor John Delury quickly noted his approval, which, just like the North Korean economy, must be seen from the bottom up to make any sense:

Screen shot 2013-05-11 at 11.20.39 PM

A “Zhu Rongji type”? If so, Pak better get ready to shed a few million jobs from the state’s immense industrial labor rolls. (Having spent a fair amount of time in the past decade in northeastern Rust Belt cities like Liaoyang, I’m accustomed to having cab drivers, acquaintances, friends and non-blood relations curse out Zhu Rongji for having gutted the old “iron rice bowl” systems of guaranteed jobs and benefits.) However, perhaps that is not quite what Professor Delury was referring to. Rather, his point may be that Pak is said to possess a sense of pragmatism, and evinces a willingness to turn a vast ship in a new direction no matter how painful the consequences.

So, is reform in the cards? It’s hard to tell, since a month is hardly a lifetime in a hereditary dictatorship, where there are no elections to quicken natural tempi and the political calendar revolves around events that took place 60 years ago. (For a case in point, consider April 21, when Kim Ki-nam and other top leaders spent the day commemorating the 109th birthday of Kim Jong-un’s deceased great grandmother.)

Andrei Lankov, writing for Russia Beyond the Headlines, hedged his bets:

The greatest surprise however was the promotion (or rather re-promotion) of Pak Pong-ju who was again made Premier of North Korea. Once, in the early 2000s, Pak was seen as a reform-minded bureaucrat. He is believed to be one of the masterminds behind the 2002 economic reforms – so far, the most radical attempt to restructure North Korea’s anachronistic and moribund economy.

When in the years 2005-7, there was a backlash against ‘reformist tendencies’, Pak got into trouble. In 2007, he lost his job as Premier and was sent to the countryside to manage a chemical plant – a rather desirous demotion by the North Korean standards. However, under the auspices of Kim Jong-un he has made a comeback and in early April has finally returned to the position he lost exactly six years ago.

What does it all mean? It would be premature to say that current developments indicate that North Korea is moving toward a more relaxed (or should we say more rational?) economic policy. But such an interpretation is looking more valid. The removal of these generals, most of whom are said to be hardliners, clears the way for some kind of radical change – assuming, that is, that Kim Jong-un’s government is willing to make the politically dangerous path of attempting to emulating China. Pak’s return to premiership seems to point further in the same direction.

As if to show Dr. Lankov how difficult it is to prove a point like this, Pak began with an enamel-peeling speech praising Kim Jong-il. This was an inauspicious start from the Western perspective, but it was safe, predictable, and should have been anticipated. No reformer in Pyongyang is going to get anywhere by suggesting that the Kim personality cult be dismantled piece-by-piece. Quite the contrary: Economic reform, to the extent it is undertaken, needs to be done explicitly to add ever greater lustre to the Kimist legacy.

Elsewhere, Pak also proceeded in a decidedly conservative direction by visiting the country’s expanding Korean War museum, an act presumably designed to show his unswerving support for the “Byungjin line” (병진로선) that claims to balance military might (and acts of  vengeful commemoration, presumably) with economic construction. Pointing in a direction, indeed.

More recently, however, he also did two things that could inspire greater hope in certain offices at Yonsei University and among those who see North Korea as already on a slow process of reform and opening up (개혁개방), whether it be Vietnamese- or Chinese-style. First, he played his part in the broader drive to show off the Workers’ Party’s desire for higher living standards in the capital city:

DPRK Premier heralds the advent of a boat/restaurant on the Taedong River in Pyongyang, April 25, 2012. Image via Rodong Sinmun video.
DPRK Premier heralds the arrival of a new boat/floating restaurant on the Taedong River in Pyongyang, April 25, 2012 | image via Rodong Sinmun video.

But if Pak is looking for ways to increase the amount of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) entering North Korea, or to find work for 50,000 skilled individuals left unemployed by the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (개성공단), he must look to China. Perhaps aware of this, and buoyed by the restaurant visit, he then turned to the frontier city of Manpo, where a new dam was unveiled replete with Kim Jong-un calligraphy.

Rodong Sinmun 2013-04-27-01-01 Manpo Dam

New hydropower station near Manpo, Jagang Province, near the Chinese frontier | image via Rodong Sinmun, April 27, 2013.

While the visit was not in any way linked to issues of trade with China, it was Premier Pak’s first big move (since he became Premier) to pay attention to the northern frontier. Ji’an-Manpo is one of the least discussed of the binary cities (Dandong-Sinuiju, Changbai-Hyesan, etc.) that line the Chinese-North Korean frontier, but it is a significant one.

The distance from Pyongyang to Man'po is clear enough, but when will Pak complete the triangle and visit Special Economic Zones in Sinuiju? Image via Tripline.

The distance from Pyongyang to Manpo is clear enough, but when will Pak complete the triangle and visit Special Economic Zones in Sinuiju? | image via Tripline.

It is also a place to look for silver linings. Back in the distinctly un-wunderschöne month of May, 2012, Chinese and North Korean officials signed an agreement to upgrade a bilateral bridge. As with so many North Korean projects, the excitement and momentum of the new and novel overrode any discussion of things so gnarly and inconvenient as follow-up, but it is not inconceivable that the visiting Pak would have checked on this significant project, in the event that it is in fact going forward.

Pak’s appointment and subsequent journey north is hardly enough for Beijing, which wants more and greater change, but could be a good sign of things to come. At the very least, it seems time is being bought.

Blog by: Adam Cathcart

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