Kim Yong Il, minister of maritime and land transport, was elected premier of North Korea's Cabinet April 11 during the fifth session of the 11th Supreme People's Assembly (SPA) in Pyongyang, replacing former Premier Pak Pong Ju. Kim has spent most of his career at the Maritime and Land Transport Ministry. In the past few years, he has overseen the construction of new facilities at the Ryongnam Ship Repair Factory near the western port of Nampo, at the mouth of the Taedong River. As premier, Kim will now be responsible for guiding the North Korean economy, a task which Pak apparently failed to perform satisfactorily. Given Kim's background, this could be a signal of a shift in Pyongyang's economic priorities — that it will pay more attention to export trade than to continuing its focus on domestic industry. Pak Pong Ju was named premier in September 2003
as part of an infusion of technocrats and potential economic "reformers" into the North Korean Cabinet and ministries. Pak was soon sent abroad on economic observation trips
, tasked with studying economic policies and proposing programs applicable to North Korea's particular situation. Pak accompanied North Korean leader Kim Jong Il on his January 2006 visit to China
, visiting several Chinese factories, universities and high-tech industries. Pak's last public appearance with Kim Jong Il came just a few months later, however, at a May 10 inspection of the Pyongyang Conservatory. Since that time, Pak's star has faded and, aside from a few meetings with Chinese officials in Pyongyang and attendance at a few performances, he has been relegated to sending letters of greeting or sympathy to various world leaders. Speculation in South Korea is that Pak's fall is linked to his agricultural policies. In August 2005, North Korea ordered an end to its semi-market system of food distribution, and shortly thereafter called on aid organizations like the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) to end humanitarian donations
to North Korea and focus instead on development assistance, making North Korea more capable of supporting itself. By May 2006, Pyongyang and the WFP reached a new deal, and humanitarian food donations were once again allowed — and requested. Pak's fall could also be related to his ties with China. Pyongyang-Beijing ties frayed even ahead of the nuclear crisis triggered by the October 2002 revelation
that North Korea might have had a uranium-enrichment program. And while Pyongyang still looked to China for assistance and guidance, North Korea's leadership also was looking to free itself from its over-reliance on Beijing. It appears that as Pyongyang was setting its own economic course, Pak might have been focusing almost exclusively on Beijing's suggestions for economic development. And with relations strained
, Kim Jong Il might simply have stopped listening to Pak — relegating him to the sidelines. The new premier was born in 1944, served nine years in the military beginning in 1961, attended the then-relatively-new Rajin University of Marine Transport and apparently moved straight into the lower ranks of the Maritime and Land Transport Ministry. Little is known about his family background. He appears to have used the military as his path upward, garnering his entrance into the university and then building his career from the ground up in the ministry. In 1994 or 1995, Kim became maritime and land transport minister, a position he has held since. In recent years, he oversaw one of North Korea's major economic projects — the modernization of the Ryongnam Ship Repair Factory near Nampo, particularly the construction of the new dock No. 2, which has been touted in North Korean media several times as a technologically advanced, computer-controlled facility. Kim accompanied Kim Jong Il to the facility in December 2005, a few months before the formal commissioning of the new shipyard. During that visit, Kim Jong Il reportedly called for the new shipyard to have adequate facilities for foreign sailors and the capability to repair foreign vessels, as well as North Korean ones.
In addition to his oversight of the Ryongnam factory, Kim has also worked on maritime communications and transportation agreements with China, Pakistan and Syria, traveling to Syria as head of an economic delegation in May 2005. Some South Korean reports suggest Kim also has traveled to China and perhaps even Cuba. While this is not exactly an extensive travel list, Kim's focus has been on expanding maritime ties with North Korea's allies; he could soon be called upon to do so with Western nations as well. While expanded commercial ties with the West might seem improbable given the nuclear issue, North Korea's nuclear crises have had less to do with nuclear weapons than with North Korea's attempts at regime preservation and breaking free from the constraints
of its relationship with the United States. As it seeks to ease out of successive crises, Pyongyang has launched a diplomatic offensive to expand economic and political ties. In general, the world has obliged North Korea, seeing engagement as a way to coax the north out of isolation and away from another nuclear crisis. This pattern could be repeated in the near future. Kim's background suggests a new shift in North Korea's economic focus. While Pyongyang has long relied on its ideology of "Juche," or self-reliance, even economically, it has yet to truly achieve self-reliance. The country's attempts to build self-sufficient light, medium and heavy industries and its agricultural sector have faltered since the late 1960s. Far from being independent, Pyongyang has only grown more dependent upon international handouts and China. The experiment in Kaesong, a South Korean-run industrial complex in North Korea that produces consumer goods for export, is finally proving itself to North Korean leaders. There is now talk of reviving older plans for additional trade zones on the west and east coasts to take advantage of possible Chinese and Japanese investments. And Pyongyang is also looking to Europe for potential investments. With Kim Yong Il in the navigator's seat for the economy, North Korea could also begin exploring an expansion of its exports, perhaps taking the basic technologies it is learning from the Kaesong project and transferring them to North Korean factories for entry into the low-end electronics markets. This is a step North Korea sees as triggering South Korea and Japan's respective economic-development cycles, and while it might not be exactly self-reliance, it is a potential source of hard currency — and could lead to an influx (or at least a steady trickle) of technology and investment. Vision and effectiveness, however, are quite different. North Korea has already seen other trade zones falter or fail even to get off the starting blocks
. And then there is the whole matter of North Korea's nuclear program. But if Kim's appointment is any guide, Pyongyang sees its isolation about to lift, at least temporarily, as it takes steps to ease the nuclear crisis. Like the rash of diplomatic contact
following the end of the 1997-8 nuclear crisis (which culminated in the 2000 inter-Korean summit
), North Korea's leaders see a small window about to open, and have positioned Kim Yong Il to exploit it.