Premier Choe Yong-rim is making unprecedented but vigorous economic inspections

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

Kim Jong Il’s field guidance visitations decreased significantly in recent weeks. In place of the North Korean leader, Premier Choe Yong-rim is known to be making solo economic inspection visitations.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, Premier Choe has made a total of 17 on-site inspections from February. Starting with Huichon Power Plant, four trips in March, two in April, six in May, and lastly, four visits in June were recorded. A high-level official to make on-site inspections unaccompanied by its leader is an unprecedented case. This suggests major change for North Korea in which the chief of Cabinet is now directly heading the economy.

Although these inspections were short day trips, sites visited concentrated mainly on factories, power plants, cooperative farms, and construction sites. While making inspection rounds, Choe’s main duty is to deliver the orders of Kim Jong Il, but he was also witnessed actively suggesting measures to resolve problems that were raised at the sites.

Premier Choe’s economic inspections correspond with the DPRK’s plan of building a strong and prosperous nation by 2012 and an effort to propagate the spirit of self-sufficiency and encourage Juche or self-reliance of the economy throughout the country.

The last report of Kim Jong Il’s official field guidance was on June 3, at the Kosan Fruit Farm located in the Kosan City of Gangwon Province. For more than a month, Kim Jong Il allegedly has not provided any onsite inspections.

There are numerous speculations on the cause of the reduced inspections but many are linking it to Premier Choe.

Many news outlets in North Korea have begun to report on Premier Choe’s economic inspection visits in isolation from Kim Jong Il and related news are on the rise. The details include visits to Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex, Nanam Coal Machine Mining Complex, and Chongjin Steel Mill from June 23 to 25 and Chollima Steel Complex on June 29.

On July 2, KCNA covered the news about Choe’s visits to Bukchang Thermalelectric Power Plant. There he presided over meetings discussing the issues of securing raw and building materials to improve facility and technological management as well as specific plans to increase energy production.

Choe’s frequent visits are interpreted to demonstrate the rise in power of the Cabinet compared to its relatively weak position of the past, compared to the Workers’ Party of Korea and National Defence Commission.

Others construe the developments as an effort to weaken any internal dissatisfaction or negative sentiments towards the regime by emphasizing the premier’s active involvement with the economic development to achieve the national goal of becoming powerful socialist state by 2012.

The decline in field inspections by Kim has raised suspicion about the health of North Korean leader. Some suggest that Kim is taking time off to recuperate from the tight schedule of his recent China visit in late May.

Recently, Japanese Kyodo News reported that Kim Jong Il cancelled plans to visit Russia on June 29 for health reasons.

Some speculate Kim is behind the scenes contemplating the changing foreign policies, deterioration of North-South relations, and food shortages.

I am not sure where the Ministry of Unification is getting their numbers. I just did a tabulation of Kim Jong-il’s and Choe Yong-rim’s economic guidance trips and public appearances from February 2011 — July 13 and get very different results than they are announcing: 36 visits for Kim Jong-il and 47 for Mr. Choe.  All the data, including links to the KCNA sources are here in an Excel Spreadsheet.

Also worth mentioning is that between June 3 and July 13 (contrary to the report) Kim Jong-il made 11 or 12 public appearances–four of which were guidance trips. See them here in an Excel Spreadsheet with links to the KCNA source.


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