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article imageNorth Korea's nuclear plant restart belies Politburo changes

By Robert Myles     Apr 2, 2013 in Politics
North Korea announced it is restarting operations at its nuclear facilities including the currently mothballed reactor at Yongbyon nuclear facility. But, behind the latest sabre-rattling there are changes at the very top of Pyongyang's political elite.
According to North Korean news agency KCNA, reported by Die Welt, a spokesman for Pyongyang’s General Department of Atomic Energy said the North’s nuclear facilities were being rebuilt and put back into operation as a means of "bolstering the nuclear armed force both in quality and quantity." The statement also said the nuclear restart would solve North Korea’s acute electricity shortage.
The Yongbyon plant was closed in July 2007, reports BBC News. It was previously believed to be the only source for weapons grade plutonium used by the North Korea to make nuclear weapons. The Yongbyon closure was part of a, now stalled, disarmament-for-trade deal. Currently, North Korea is believed to possess sufficient plutonium to manufacture between four and eight nuclear weapons says Al Jazeera.
If the Yongbyon nuclear facility is brought back into operation, then it could produce enough plutonium each year to make one nuclear bomb annually.
Although the Yongbyon announcement may be seen as the latest turn of the ratchet by the North in fomenting tensions in the Korean peninsula, Die Welt says the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un actually toned down the rhetoric of the past few weeks and instead focused on North Korean development.
While Kim Jong Un’s speech to the central committee meeting of the ruling Workers Party of Korea contained familiar refrains such as: "Our nuclear strength is a reliable war deterrent and a guarantee to protect our sovereignty," at the same meeting, there was a hint that the North Korean leader, who is believed to be sympathetic to reforms, may be trying to make changes in the face of a military still mired in the Cold War era.
A new North Korean Premier, a new direction?
At the recent Workers Party conference, Pak Pong-Ju was appointed as North Korea’s new Prime Minister, reports Straits Times. This is Pak Pong-Ju's second spell in the post. Previously, he was North Korea’s Prime Minister from 2003 to 2007 but he was suspended from the post in 2006 before being dismissed the following year.
When he was previously premier, Pak Pong-Ju, now aged 74, had attempted to push through economic reforms. The aims included giving state owned companies greater independence from stifling government control and reducing chronic food shortages in North Korea.
Pak Pong-Ju has had many years experience in North Korean industry starting off as manager of a food factory in 1962. He was on the periphery of North Korea's ruling Korean Workers' Party until September 1998 when he was appointed to the chemical-industries portfolio in the cabinet of then Prime Minister Hong Song-nam, who Pak Pong-Ju would replace five years later.
Pak Pong-Ju's first tenure as North Korean premier was brief. He disappeared from view in May 2006 amid rumours that he had misused oil funds intended for use in the farming sector. But more significantly, another reason advanced for Pak Pong-Ju's fall from grace was that he was too focused on putting into place economic reforms suggested by the People's Republic of China instead of persisting with North Korean ideas for changes in the economy.
Pak Pong-Ju is also reputed to be a close ally of Jang Sung-taek, an uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Jang Sung-taek is believed to be one of the highest ranking generals in the North Korean military as well as being a member of the elite Politburo Presidium. In 2012, Jang held a series of high level meetings with top Chinese officials. The undertone to these discussions seemed to be the possibility of North Korea emulating the Chinese route to prosperity. At one meeting with the then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Jang Sung-taek said, "The cooperation on the two economic zones has entered a substantive stage. The DPRK is willing to closely cooperate with China to accelerate relevant efforts and push forward cooperation in developing economic zones."
For all North Korea's recent belligerence, these behind the scenes moves by the North Korean leadership may instead be pointing to a real agenda of reform instead of rockets.
More about North korea, Nuclear weapons, Nuclear plant, Yongbyon, Pak PongJu
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