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In North Korea, angry crowds and rising prices spur power plays

North Korea fired its chief financial planner in wake of a currency revaluation that sparked public anger, according to reports in South Korean media. One outlet reported that crowds were besieging marketplaces as prices rise.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent / February 4, 2010

Seoul, South Korea

North Korea is seething with discontent while the regime looks for scapegoats for the failure of an attempt at reforming the currency and curbing free enterprise, analysts here said Thursday.

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The reported dismissal of North Korea’s chief financial planner is just the most obvious sign of mounting discontent with revaluation of the currency, according to reports reaching here, as restive crowds attacked officials in marketplaces far from the capital of Pyongyang.

Analysts say Pak Nam-gi, director of planning for the Workers’ Party, has disappeared. He was responsible for revaluing the currency in hopes of curbing runaway inflation and stopping profiteers from hoarding money and then changing it to Chinese or Western currency.

“They need some scapegoat for the failure of their policy,” says Choi Won-ki, North Korea senior analyst at the Korea Institute of National Unification. “People can’t buy food in the market. The food flow is very bad. The number of dead is increasing.”

Analysts see a power struggle under way as the North’s ailing leader Kim Jong-il attempts to smooth the path for his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him, and powerful military men assert themselves. North Korean artillery exercises in the Yellow Sea are seen as an outward manifestation of the internal struggle.

“Kim Jong-il’s controlling power as chairman of the National Defense Commission is gradually relaxing,” says Ha Tae-young, president of Open Radio for North Korea, which relies on informants inside North Korea as primary sources for two hours a day of shortwave broadcasting from here into the North. “North Korean policy toward South Korea is very unstable, back and forth.”

Angry crowds in marketplaces

Inside North Korea, angry crowds reportedly besiege marketplaces as the price of rice, the staple food when it’s available, rises many times from its level in December and the value of the currency sharply deteriorates.

Good Friends, an aid organization here that disseminates information from sources in the North, reports an angry crowd in one provincial center shouting, “Households who can afford barely one meal a day are increasing,” and “Will you starve us to death?”