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Young North Korean leader takes control of economy from military

After purge of top general, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un moves to adopt China's model, opening up the economy and making farm reforms.

By Benjamin Kang LimReuters / July 20, 2012

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waves at Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang after reviewing a parade of soldiers. Kim has been promoted to Marshal, the military's highest rank, according to the North Korean state media his week.

(AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, File)

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Beijing

Impoverished North Korea is gearing up to experiment with agricultural and economic reforms after young leader Kim Jong-un and his powerful uncle purged the country's top general for opposing change, a source with ties to both Pyongyang and Beijing said.

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The source added that the 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's father was given pride of place in running the country.

The downfall of 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.

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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 by the North in decades. Previous attempts at a more market driven economy have floundered, most recently 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 told Reuters, referring to Kim Jong-un's late father who plunged the North deeper into isolation over its nuclear ambitions, abject poverty and political repression.

The biggest problem was that he 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 look 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. He already heads the Workers' Party of Korea and is first chairman of the National Defence Commission.
The North Korean Embassy in Beijing, reached by telephone, declined to comment.

REFORMS

Some North Korea experts said the comments confirmed their belief that the new leadership would try to make some changes to the stultifying controls over the economy.

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