Impoverished North Korea is gearing up to experiment with agricultural and economic reforms after its leader Kim Jong-un and his powerful uncle purged the country’s top general for opposing change, a source with ties to Pyongyang and Beijing said.
The source added that the North Korean Cabinet had created a special bureau to take control of the decaying economy from the military — one of the world’s largest — which under Kim Jong-un’s father and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was given pride of place in running the country.
The downfall of North Korean Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho and his allies gives the untested new leader and his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who married into the Kim family dynasty and is widely seen as the real power behind the throne, the mandate to try to save the battered economy and prevent the secretive regime’s collapse.
The source has correctly predicted events in the past, including North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 days before it was conducted, as well as the ascension of Jang.
The changes could herald the most significant reforms made by the North in decades. Previous attempts at a more market-driven economy have floundered, the most recent being a drastic currency revaluation in late 2009 which triggered outrage and is widely believed to have resulted in the execution of its chief proponent.
“Ri Yong-ho was the most ardent supporter of Kim Jong-il’s ‘military first’ policy,” the source said, referring the country’s former leader plunging the North deeper into isolation over its nuclear ambitions, abject poverty and political repression.
The biggest problem was that Kim Jong-il opposed the government taking over control of the economy from the military, the source said, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions.
North Korea’s state news agency KCNA had cited illness for the surprise decision to relieve Ri of all his posts, including the powerful role of vice chairman of the ruling party’s Central Military Commission, though in recent video footage he had appeared in good health.
Ri was very close to Kim Jong-il and had been a leading figure in the military. Ri’s father fought against the Japanese alongside Kim Jong-il’s late father, Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea and is still revered as its eternal president.
The revelation by the source was an indication of a power struggle in the secretive state in which Kim Jong-un and Jang appear to have further consolidated political and military power.
Kim Jong-un was named Marshal of the Republic this week in a move that adds to his glittering array of titles and cements his position following the death of his father in December last year. He already heads the Workers’ Party of Korea and is first chairman of the National Defense Commission.
The North Korean embassy in Beijing, reached by telephone, declined to comment.
North Korea’s Cabinet has created a “political bureau” which will wrest power from the 1.2 million-strong military to run the economy, which has been in a shambles after a crippling famine in the 1990s, the source said.
“In the past, the Cabinet was empty with no say in the economy. The military controlled the economy, but that will now change,” the source said.
Kim Jong-un has set up an “economic reform group” in the ruling Workers’ Party to look at agricultural and economic reforms, the source said, adding that North Korea would learn from its giant neighbor and solitary benefactor, China.